In a major report this year, global anti-poverty charity Oxfam estimates that the poor could take over a decade to recover from the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis. Meanwhile, their wealthier counterparts have already recovered – and then some – after just nine months of the pandemic. COVID undoubtedly played a role in expediting the increasing wage inequality in our country, with U.S. Billionaires gaining over one trillion dollars worth of income over the pandemic. So the question is: what can we do to prevent that outcome?
President Biden’s COVID relief bill, currently being negotiated in Congress, includes raising the federal minimum wage floor to $15, a move that many critics have pushed back on. President Biden is right to include this in the bill because raising the wage is one of the best ways to provide long-term COVID relief.
A 15 dollar wage will pull 23 million workers into a living wage. Currently, the people trapped in jobs that pay poverty-level wages are so poor they cannot participate in the consumer economy in any impactful way. Raising the wage helps more than the workers; it helps our businesses. 70% of our economy is made up of consumer spending, and by increasing the wage, consumer spending can come to the rescue of those businesses. The temporary injections of cash that people receive from the stimulus checks can help businesses in the short term, but the impact of the longer term, day to day, would be much more significant than the one-shot injection of funds.
A living wage is also critical for healthier public health outcomes. A 2018 study found that minimum wages profoundly impact people’s health outcomes by creating easier access to medical care, housing, and health insurance. Higher wages also correlate with lower cigarette use, lower rates of obesity, and epidemiologists have seen that higher job satisfaction improves workers’ overall health. By raising the minimum wage by one dollar, 27 thousand suicides can be prevented every single year. If the wage is raised to the full $15? Over 209 thousand suicides prevented.
The current lack of access to health care is an active threat to the American economy’s recovery timeline for COVID-19. According to a 2020 survey, half of U.S. adults with lower incomes skipped needed medical care or prescriptions because of costs. A primary care provider can be critical to swift vaccine disbursement, but if workers can’t afford to access that care because they’re too busy using their scant wages to pay for things like food and rent, we are all worse off as a result. After the loss of 443,000 lives so far in the COVID-19 pandemic, raising the wage would be a massive and much-needed investment in our societies’ public health.
Raising the wage has long-reaching positive implications for our economy and our public health, both of which took a massive hit during COVID-19. If we want to shrink the projected decade long recovery for the lower-income, raising the wage floor is one of the best ways to do that while simultaneously improving health outcomes. For our communities to recover any sense of normalcy in public health and the economy, we must raise the wage to $15 an hour – and nothing less.