On June 20, two candidates will face off in a special election in Georgia’s 6th District in what could be a litmus test for the Democratic Party in the upcoming 2018 mid-term elections.
Last night, Democrat Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old former documentary filmmaker from Atlanta, and Republican Karen Handel, former Georgia Secretary of State, fielded questions in a final televised debate.
For both candidates it was a moment to leave voters with a lasting impression before they head to the polls in less than two weeks. But the debate will probably be remembered for one exchange in particular.
Asked about whether the candidates supported a minimum wage increase, Ossoff argued in favor, saying, “The minimum wage should be a living wage.”
“If someone’s working a 40-hour work week, they deserve the sort of standard of living that Americans expect,” he said. “That’s part of the American dream and there are too many folks who are having trouble making ends meet.”
Handel took the question in another direction entirely.
“This is an example of the fundamental difference between a liberal and a conservative,” she said. “I do not support a livable wage.”
Her argument against a livable wage later touched on the effect of raising the minimum wage on small businesses, an argument for which there are numerous examples.
“What I support is making sure we have an economy that is robust with low taxes and less regulations, so that those small businesses that would be dramatically hurt if you impose higher minimum wages on them be able to do what they do best: grow jobs,” she said.
Although she was asked if she supported a minimum wage increase, she instead responded to Ossoff’s support of a living wage. In a country where 66% of people support raising the minimum wage to $10.10/hour and 48% of people support raising it to $15/hour, Handel’s gaffe, which implied wages do not need to be high enough to allow people to live comfortably, could cost her votes in an election that she trails by just 2%, according to polls.
In most cases across the United States, the minimum wage and the living wage are not one and the same. In Georgia, for example, the state minimum wage is $5.15/hour, already significantly lower than the federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour, and about half of the living wage of $11.35/hour in Georgia, according to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator.
Unlike the minimum wage, the living wage takes into account how much a worker must make in order to afford a “decent” standard of living, and includes factors such as health and childcare costs, food, transportation, and rent in any given location.
In recent years, several cities and states across the country have proposed legislation to raise the minimum wage to better reflect the living wage. On the first day of 2017 alone, 19 states increased their minimum wage, including eight conservative-led states: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, and South Dakota.
Three cities (San Francisco, Seattle, and Minneapolis) have moved toward a $15 minimum wage for all businesses, with Minneapolis proposing a $15/hour minimum wage by 2022.
Despite opposition from candidates like Handel, it seems that across the United States a trend towards more livable wages is slowly emerging, and that could make a huge difference in lifting the most vulnerable Americans out of poverty.
According to a HuffPost/YouGov poll, a full 77% of Democrats and 55% of Republicans supported raising the minimum wage to $10.10, but just 24% of Republicans support a $15/hour minimum wage.
Republicans often argue that raising the minimum wage too quickly will lead to small businesses being unable to keep up with their overhead costs and large businesses to outsource low-paid jobs overseas. Democrats often contend that raising the minimum wage will reduce income inequality and help low-income workers find stable employment, afford healthcare, and enter the middle class.
But on both sides of the aisle, there is a developing consensus that the minimum wage should be higher than it currently is at $7.25/hour.
Handel’s statement, it seems, was more of an outlier than the norm. And time will tell if that outlying statement will dissuade voters from electing her.