My first job was a minimum wage job. In fact, it was at this very newspaper. I worked for $2.30 cents an hour in the summer of 1976. My weekly paycheck showed gross earnings of about $92 a week.

It wasn’t much, but I was able to make an $85 a month car payment and pay $95 a month rent. I even had carrying-around money. I could afford gas for my car and the occasional lunch buffet at Ken’s Pizza. Keep in mind, gas was around 60 cents a gallon — on a bad day — and the lunch buffet was $1.99.

That same year, I moved to another newspaper and was paid a whopping $3.50 an hour. Not bad for a Claremore Junior College graduate attending Northeastern State University.

In the fall of 1976, I was still paying $85 a month for a car and my rent actually decreased to about $45 a month because I then had a roommate.

Times were good. So good in fact, I was able to pay $500 for necessary dental work out of my minimum wage bank account.

But it’s been nearly three decades since a minimum wage job could buy a place to live, a car to drive and out-of-pocket dental care. The reality is this, people already earning $7.25 an hour — the carrot Congress is dangling — can’t afford even minimal living standards as it is.

Ever escalating costs of living hurt more than the working poor. They are eroding America’s symbolic “middle class.” They are making us a nation of haves and have-nots.

What started out as a social adjustment has fallen short of the intended, now euphemistic, “living wage.” Minimum wage legislation has become more about gaining political collateral and less about raising the standard of living.

Just look at the facts.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, “the effect of the last minimum wage increase in 1996-97 has been completely eroded by inflation — $5.15 today is the equivalent of only $3.95 in 1995 — lower than the $4.25 minimum wage level before the 1996-97 increase.”

It’s no wonder nearly 85 percent of people support an increase in the minimum wage as shown in a recent Pew Research Center poll.

Since its inception in 1938, the minimum wage has played a vital role in raising the standard of living and working conditions. But inflation and growing corporate greed have taken a toll.

The government’s own fact machine reveals today’s minimum wage earner has less buying power than ever. According to U.S. Labor Department Statistics, 1976’s $2.30 was like earning $6. 46 an hour; today’s $5.15 when adjusted for inflation based on the consumer price index was valued at $4.75 10 years ago.

In today’s labor market, a minimum wage earner is lucky to find a 40-hour a week job making the minimum $5.15 an hour grossing $206 a week. The real downer comes when that wage earner realizes his 2007 paycheck will only buy him 70 percent of what the 1976 wage earner could afford.

So go figure. I mean literally figure. A quick survey of basic living expenses right here in Rogers County shows housing and transportation that cost approximately $200 a month 30 years ago, today cost $700 a month — a 250 percent increase. Compare those numbers to the income side: A minimum wage worker earned an average of $400 a month in 1976; today 2007, a minimum wage worker earns an average of $892 a month working full-time — a 125 percent increase.

By the time the proposed $7.25 minimum wage goes into effect in 2010 weary workers will gross $1,257 monthly. Subtract withholding taxes, the predicted increase in cost of gas, food and services, and the minimum will again fall short of the “living wage” it was intended to produce.

Even the bean-counters agree, on a national level, the inflation-adjusted value of the minimum wage is 30 percent lower in 2007 than it was in 1979.

Some self-serving minimum wage opponents say an increase will only grow the pool of part-time minimum wage jobs and bring even higher prices for goods and services.

If you look at the figures above, it certainly seems to be the trend. Not exactly the carrot Congress promises low-income workers with their $2.10 increase.

Other trends that raise concerns:

- United States workers are already pricing themselves out of the global marketplace. Nationally, the lower paid service industry has taken the lead over manufacturing job availability and that trend is expected to continue.

- The working poor and middle income parents no longer have the option of a single income lifestyle. Instead of one wage earner and one homemaker, families require two wage earners and no homemaker. The social repercussions are well documented.

My conclusion: Pass the minimum wage increase. But don't stop there. Provide incentives for providing higher paying jobs across the board, pricing controls and taxation for greedy corporations and tax credits to those who need them the most.

Otherwise, the future will find an even greater rift between the haves and the have-nots and middle class wage earners will find themselves an unintentional addition to the ranks of the working poor.

Our newly elected leadership in Washington should know this: Those who work don’t just need more dollars, they need dollars that buy more.

•THE MINIMUM WAGE

Inflation has eroded the minimum wage’s buying power to the lowest level in about 50 years.

The Labor Department says 479,000 workers paid by the hour earned exactly $5.15 in 2005, the most recent estimate available.

Nearly 1.5 million workers earn less than the minimum wage in 2004.

The proportion of hourly-paid workers earning the prevailing Federal minimum wage or less has trended downward since 1979, when data first began to be collected on a regular basis.

In Oklahoma, nearly 41,000 workers earn minimum wage or less. They represent 4.8 percent of the state’s working population. Oklahoma is in the top three states with the most at or below minimum wage earners.

About half of all hourly-paid workers earning $5.15 or less are under age 25, and about one-fourth are age 16-19.

Source: U.S. Department of Labor



THE POLITICS

•Democratic-written legislation would raise the federal wage floor from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour in three steps over 26 months. The federal wage hasn’t budged for 10 years. The bill would raise the wage floor in three steps. It would go to $5.85 an hour 60 days after signed into law by the president, to $6.55 an hour a year later, and to $7.25 an hour a year after that.

•President Bush said he supports a wage boost paired with “targeted tax and regulatory relief” to help businesses -- which would have to pay for the higher labor costs -- stay competitive. As currently written, the House bill doesn’t include any such tax or regulatory breaks.

•The Senate is expected to move quickly -- perhaps in the next few weeks -- on a similar bill. Business groups and some Republican lawmakers, however, hope they will be able to get some business-friendly provisions into the Senate package.

Source: Associated Press