The Bare Minimum Series: Regional Variation

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Raising the federal minimum wage to at least $15 an hour will lift millions of Americans out of working poverty – and it’s scaring a lot of special interests who profit from keeping people poor. In this series, we’re dismantling the myths, one by one, that Raise the Wage opponents use to try and stop 40 million workers from making the money they deserve. 

This week, we’re tackling regional variation. 

Here’s something you’ve probably heard in some variation before: Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour “more than doubles the minimum wage…that’s a big problem. It’s a big step.” 

That particular quote is from Virginia State Senator Mark Obenshain, a Republican in the state legislature speaking out on his decision to vote down a bill raising the wage to $15 an hour earlier this year. Sen. Obenshain, along with the rest of the Republicans in Virginia’s General Assembly, have argued for years that raising the wage to $15 an hour across the board would harm business in rural areas, where, they contend, $15 an hour is just too much. 

They argue that $15 an hour might make sense for densely populated urban areas of the state that attract high-skilled workers and often have higher costs of living, but that the rural, poorer parts of the state simply couldn’t afford a $15 minimum wage – that business can’t afford to pay it and that workers don’t need it. This is called the regional variation argument, and it echoes a national argument that $15 an hour might be right for more prosperous states like New York and California, but that it would hurt poorer, less urban states. It’s just as ridiculous an argument in Virginia as it is nationwide.  

As proponents of this idea love to point out, Virginia’s overall economy consists of many diverse local economies spanning a wide range of industries, populations, growth rates, and geographies. There certainly is regional variation in the cost of living, but not in the way that opponents of raising the wage want you to believe. Data shows that workers in both urban and rural areas can’t afford basic costs of living like rent and groceries on Virginia’s current minimum wage. By 2024 – the date by which a $15 minimum would actually be phased in – workers in both areas will need no less $15 an hour just to eke out a basic living. This variation doesn’t mean that a $15 minimum wage is too much for large parts of Virginia, it means that workers in higher cost of living areas should be paid more than $15. Both workers need higher wages, and framing the issue in any other way is intentionally misleading.

Virginia is a useful microcosm for the broader argument in the national minimum wage debate. The state’s economic makeup mimics the broader national economy, particularly because Virginia is one of just 21 states who follows the federal minimum wage of just $7.25 an hour. And like in Virginia, variance between different states and regions exists, but nowhere in the United States, even in the poorest, most rural regions, will someone be able to afford all of their basic needs on anything less than $15 an hour. It just won’t be possible. 

Herein lies the biggest issue with the regional variation argument when it comes to the minimum wage. Though economies certainly differ from region-to-region, the point of the minimum wage is to establish a wage floor, meaning that is the absolute lowest a worker should be paid. States, localities, and even individual companies can and should certainly raise their wages to reflect the cost-of-living for their specific workers. But the federal minimum is the absolute bare minimum wage floor that sets a new baseline for all those states, localities, and individual companies off which to set their new wage tiers. 

If every single worker in this country, regardless of region, needs $15 an hour by 2024, then that is what we have to do. A national bill that allow $12 an hour in this state versus $13.50 in another misses the point that we need to set a wage floor that works for everyone. Rather than arguing about $15 an hour being too much for rural areas, we need to set that as the baseline and start arguing about $15 an hour not being high enough for high cost-of-living cities. Regional variation is real, but we need to change the premise of the conversation.

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