To Work With Dignity

The Unfinished March Toward a Decent Minimum Wage

Immediately after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Bayard Rustin, deputy director of the march, read off the marchers’ demands.

As they did after each demand was read aloud, the crowd roared its approval when Rustin proclaimed, “We demand that there be an increase in the national minimum wage so that men may live in dignity.”

The demand for a higher minimum wage was part of a package of demands seeking economic justice for workers through government intervention in the labor market. At the time of the march about half of all blacks lived in poverty. Due to discrimination in the labor market and the educational system, blacks were heavily concentrated in many of the lowest-paid occupations. An increase in the minimum wage, along with the other march demands, had the potential to lift a large share of the black population out of poverty.

This paper examines the context that gave rise to this particular march demand, presents historical trends in the real (inflation-adjusted) value of the minimum wage and the impact on black workers, and discusses some of the contemporary issues surrounding minimum-wage policies.

Key findings include:

  • The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was the latest in a series of events and campaigns designed to bring the United States closer to achieving racial and economic equality.
  • The demand for a higher minimum wage reflected the marchers’ belief that the wage floor at the time did not enable hard-working men and women to work and live in dignity, and that the remedy would require direct intervention in the labor market.
  • The passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 was an important step, but it was flawed from the beginning as business elites and racist politicians coalesced to limit the coverage of workers in the act.
  • The value of the minimum wage peaked in 1968 at $1.60, which is about $9.44 measured in today’s dollars; the current minimum wage of $7.25 is 23 percent less than it was in 1968 in real terms.
  • New research has shown that minimum-wage increases have not resulted in reduced employment and thus do not hurt the low-wage workers that the increases seek to help. Rather, higher wages reduce high turnover that is costly to employers; increase consumer spending, which boosts the economy; and help to reduce both working poverty and inequality.
  • Female and black workers would particularly benefit from an increase in the minimum wage.
  • An effective policy agenda to increase economic security for low-wage workers would:
    • Raise the federal minimum wage. The 1963 March on Washington called for a $2.00 minimum wage, which is equivalent to $13.39 today. The Harkin-Miller bill to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 approaches what the marchers demanded.
    • Increase the $2.13 subminimum wage for workers who rely on tips to at least 70 percent of the regular minimum wage.
    • Expand the FLSA to cover in-home care workers.