Steven Wilkerson, a former Marine who fought in Iraq and a father of three, makes $8 an hour at a Tampa fast-food restaurant. He usually gets off work and takes the bus home at 10 p.m., too late to see his kids before they go to bed.
Wilkerson, 28, is just one of millions of fathers who will struggle to celebrate this Father’s Day, knowing that no matter how hard he works, his paycheck barely stretches far enough to support his family.
Much is rightly made of continuing pay disparities between working men and women and of the scandalously poor economic status of single mothers. However, it is important to recognize that too many fathers, including growing numbers of single dads, also are trapped in jobs that pay too little to provide decent lives for themselves and their families. More women than men, and about twice as many mothers as fathers, are stuck in dead-end, low-paying jobs. But far too many men and dads like Steven Wilkerson also work long hours at poverty-level wages.
Of the 27.1 million fathers with minor children in the United States in 2011 (including 2 million single-parent households headed by fathers), about 6.2 million earned less than $14 per hour, with half of these men in jobs paying less than $10 per hour, according to a new Oxfam America study of the nation’s working poor. And, like most other low-wage workers, few of these men receive any benefits — paid sick leave, vacation, or employer-provided pensions or health insurance.
Perhaps the best Father’s Day gift these low-wage fathers could receive is a raise. Most men in jobs as laborers, waiters or cooks, and other poorly paying occupations, cannot simply demand a raise from their employers, but we as a nation can give them a raise by increasing the federal minimum wage from its current level of $7.25 per hour to $10.10 per hour. This is what has been proposed in several bills.
Despite the stereotype that low-wage workers are teenagers seeking extra spending money, the average low-wage worker is 35, and three million dads are among the more than 25 million American workers (and their families) who would benefit from a $10.10 minimum wage. This is one in nine fathers. The growing ranks of low-wage dads, moms, and other adults is part of a larger story of stagnant or declining wages for many Americans, increasing economic inequality, and the sad fact that low-wage occupations are the fastest-growing part of the U.S. labor force. They can be found in cities and suburbs, rural America and the exurbs. The Oxfam study and maps show how many men and women in each of the nation’s 435 congressional districts, as well as the District of Columbia and all 50 states, would benefit from a minimum-wage increase.
Raising the minimum wage used to be a bipartisan issue, one passed by Democratic and Republican Congresses and signed into law by presidents of both parties, from Franklin Roosevelt to George W. Bush. That consensus — that every hard-working American deserves a decent paycheck — has broken down in the wake of our current, bitterly divided politics.
Yet, divided as the two parties may be, the American people are not. Nearly three-fourths of Americans support a minimum-wage increase and, whenever local initiatives to raise the minimum wage have been on the ballot, they have almost universally passed by large margins. And a few prominent, out-of-office Republican leaders, including Mitt Romney, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, recently have come out in support of an increased minimum wage.
Despite critics who say that a higher minimum wage would kill jobs, most studies show little or no effect on employment. At the same time, an average of about one-fifth of workers in Republican- and Democratic-held districts would get a much-needed raise, 5 million Americans would be lifted out of poverty, 14 million children would see their family incomes rise, and the increased purchasing power of workers with more money to spend would stimulate our overall economy.
As Wilkerson said: “... I am paid so little that I can’t afford a car and must take the bus to and from work. Those long daily treks mean that I don’t get to see my kids until my day off — and, by that time, I’m very tired. That’s not right.”
Andrew Yarrow is senior research adviser for Oxfam America, an organization that creates solutions to poverty, hunger and other issues.