President Obama travels to Michigan Wednesday to tout his proposal to boost the minimum wage.
Raising the wage to $10.10 an hour is one of the top agenda items for Obama and his fellow Democrats during this mid-term election year. The White House says the move would put more money in the pockets of some 28 million workers.
One test of that strategy will be in Arkansas, where proponents are trying to put a minimum wage increase on the ballot in November. Arkansas has some of the lowest wages in the country and it’s also home to one of the most vulnerable Senate Democrats.
At just around supper-time, Taylor Dilday goes door to door in Little Rock, Arkansas’s Briarwood neighborhood. He carries a clipboard and wears a bright green T-shirt that spells out his mission: Raise the minimum wage.
“Hi, I’m Taylor. And I’m with Give Arkansas A Raise Now …” he recited.
Elizabeth Danley doesn’t take much convincing. She grabbed a pen and eagerly signed Dilday’s petition.
“This is the hope for Arkansas. We worry about Arkansas so much. We need to be paying ourselves, besides the people who are up there in the 1 percent. The rest of us need to be part of that,” she said.
Working his way along streets of solid, brick houses, many of them decorated with flags of the Arkansas Razorbacks, Dilday got a mixed reaction. At the Phillips household, the whole family took a break from cooking dumplings to add their names to his petition.
Other residents close the door on Dilday before he can even get a word out.
“It’s hit or miss with every neighborhood. Generally, you know out west, the further you go, the more backlash we get. But the further inner-city we go, we have a lot of supporters,” Dilday said.
And that support could have an important spillover effect for Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor.
He is in a tough spot this year, running for re-election as a Democrat in a deeply red state, especially since turnout among Democratic voters typically suffers in non-presidential years.
Political scientist Jay Barth of Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, says putting a minimum wage increase on the ballot alongside Pryor could give Democrats more of a reason to show up on Election Day.
The national minimum wage hasn’t budged in almost five years. It buys less today than it did in the late 1960s.
“For Mark Pryor to win … this has to be an election that’s not about social issues, not about the president but really about bread and butter economic issues. And if there’s a lot of conversation about the minimum wage, that is perhaps the most popular economic issue the Democrats have going for them,” Barth said.
Pryor has tried to put some distance between himself and President Obama, who’s deeply unpopular in Arkansas. He has opposed the president’s push for a national minimum wage of $10.10 an hour, while embracing the Arkansas campaign to boost the state minimum to $8.50.
“He’s all in on the state minimum wage, while he’s able to kind of say, ‘I’m not for Obama’s minimum wage,'” Barth said.
Eleanor Wheeler of the group Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families says even the more modest state increase could make a big difference in Arkansas, where the average wage is the third lowest in the country — behind only Mississippi and West Virginia — and more than one out of 10 children has a parent making minimum wage.
“When parents struggle, their kids struggle too. And there are a lot of kids out there with parents who are working minimum wage. And we want to make sure their parents can provide for everybody,” Wheeler said.
But Little Rock businessman Roger Lacy warns boosting the minimum wage could backfire.
“I think it should stay where it is,” he said.
Lacy owns a janitorial company that cleans office buildings. Most of his 225 employees work part-time. And most make minimum wage: $7.25 an hour. If that minimum goes up, Lacy says, it won’t come out of his pocket. He’ll simply pass the cost on to the tenants whose offices his company cleans.
“If times are good, people kind of accept it and roll with it. If you’re in a recession like we’ve been, you are going to get people saying, ‘No. I’m hurting. I can’t do that.’ Then you’re going to have to adjust to that,” he said.
Lacy argues some workers might have their hours cut back. Others might not be hired at all.
Economists disagree about the projected severity of job cuts when the minimum wage goes up. While the majority of workers stand to benefit from bigger paychecks, Lacy says it’s the young and unskilled who would suffer most.
“It really impacts those people. They never get a chance to advance. And they don’t get the work skills to even get out and get a job somewhere else,” he said.
Lacy adds that even the majority of workers who keep their jobs and get a pay raise will see part of the increase eaten up by higher prices, as other businesses pass along their costs. That was enough to give Elizabeth Dober pause, when Taylor Dilday came knocking on her door with his petition.
“I’m not sure how I feel about that. So I’m not sure if I want to sign that just yet,” she said.
Dober worries that if minimum wage climbs to $8.50 an hour, people who are making that much now will soon want a raise as well.
“So it’s just a big huge effect all the way up the line. And as you get older, you think about what things used to cost. And I’m old,” she said.
After a moment’s hesitation, though, Dober agreed to sign the petition and put the question on the November ballot. She said, “I guess voters should have the right to decide those things.”