Our daily bread

In 1938, as part of legislation passed in the progressive spirit of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed to ensure a minimum wage for American workers. In that year, the minimum wage was set at 25 cents an hour. This legislation also set in place the idea of the 40-hour workweek and mandated premium pay for overtime. Most significantly, the bill outlawed child labor in interstate commerce.

The passage of that bill occurred despite fierce resistance from conservative forces, though they did manage to weaken the bill substantially, inserting provisions that excluded domestic workers and farm laborers from its provisions. As amended, the legislation was less than Roosevelt had sought, but he saw it as a good start toward making a nation where workers could not be exploited as ruthlessly as they had been to that date.

Three decades later, in 1968, the national minimum wage had climbed to $1.60 an hour, though farm workers remained exempt, thanks to powerful lobbying from agribusiness. Thanks also to that lobbying, the average government farm subsidy had risen from $175 in 1960 to just shy of $1,000 by 1968.

Three decades further on, in 1998, the national minimum wage had reached $5.15 an hour, where it remains to this day. California, along with a few other states, has laws that set the minimum wage higher than the national standard, but it would be impossible for anyone to make a compelling argument that even California’s minimum-wage rate of $6.75 is a living wage for anyone trying to keep body, soul and family together here in the Golden State.

An hour’s work at minimum-wage rates in 1938 bought a worker two-and-a-half loaves of bread. By 1968, an hour of minimum-wage labor bought a worker nearly five loaves of bread, though malnutrition was still widespread in the world’s richest nation in that year. By 1998, however, the value of an hour of work paid at the national minimum-wage rate had returned to Depression-era levels. In 1998—and today—an hour of minimum-wage work will buy about two-and-a-half loaves of bread. During this same span of years, of course, nearly all other services and commodities—from home heating to gasoline to housing costs—have soared far beyond the increase in bread prices.

Given the broad disparity between the minimum wage and the actual cost of living for Californians, it is encouraging to see Governor Schwarzenegger’s new support for a $1-per-hour increase in the minimum-wage rate over the next two years. Though Schwarzenegger’s support for a minimum-wage increase seems to be an attempt to head off efforts by Democrats to pass a bill that would index the minimum wage to the rate of inflation, any increase in the minimum-wage rate, however motivated, is both needed and welcome.

But a minimum-wage law that will increase a worker’s salary by less than half a loaf of bread per hour is hardly the kind of progressive legislation anyone should brag about in the richest state in the richest nation on the planet.