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Voters in Arkansas just gave 300,000 workers a raise

It’s the latest state to raise the minimum wage.

FILE - In this June 5, 2014 file photo, Juanita Meeker refills meat patties at the deli inside a Wal-Mart To Go in Bentonville, Ark. Wal-Mart is raising starting wages for more than 100,000 U.S. department managers and workers in its deli and other specia
An employee refills meat patties at a deli in Bentonville, Ark., on June 5, 2014.
AP Photo/Sarah Bentham, File

About 300,000 workers in Arkansas are getting a raise.

Voters in Arkansas approved Issue 5, a ballot measure that will gradually hike the state’s minimum wage to $11 an hour by 2021. That’s a 29 percent increase over three years.

Hundreds of thousands of workers in the state who earn the minimum wage will get larger paychecks starting next year, when the first wage increase goes into effect. The current minimum hourly wage is $8.50 and will jump to $9.25 in January.

Arkansas is one of two states with minimum-wage hikes on the ballot Tuesday. In neighboring Missouri, voters approved a similar measure Tuesday to raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour.

With the passage of Issue 5, Arkansas joins a growing number of states that have raised the minimum wage as corporate profits are soaring.

In January, a total of 18 states raised their minimum wage, six of which will eventually hit $15 an hour. Some of them happened through similar ballot initiatives, others through the regular legislative process. And they aren’t just deeply blue states. For example, Arizona, Colorado, and Maine boosted the minimum wage this year to about $10 an hour, and will reach $12 an hour by 2020.

The measures are viewed as a solution to one of the biggest problems plaguing the American economy: The nation’s lowest-paid workers have hardly seen their incomes budge even as the US economy continues to grow and enrich those at the top of the income ladder. The ballot measures are also a response to congressional inaction on the issue — lawmakers in Washington, DC, haven’t raised the $7.25 federal minimum wage in nearly 10 years.

One in four Arkansas workers earns the minimum wage

Arkansas has one of the highest poverty rates in the country, and about a quarter of the state’s workers earn the current minimum wage of $8.50 an hour.

Arkansas workers have wanted to raise the minimum wage for years. But despite widespread support for the idea, Republican lawmakers voted down a bill in 2013 that would have raised the minimum wage from $6.25 to $8.25. (Meanwhile, state lawmakers themselves have gotten huge raises.)

The next year, in 2014, labor and religious groups gathered enough signatures to bypass the legislature and put the issue directly to voters. They overwhelmingly voted to give workers a raise. That’s why the current minimum wage is $8.50 an hour.

But as the economy improves and the cost of living increases, workers are struggling to pay their bills. The average worker in Arkansas needs to earn $13.84 an hour to afford a two-bedroom home, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Republicans control the state legislature and governor’s mansion, and they overwhelmingly oppose the ballot measure. The state’s chamber of commerce tried to knock the measure off the ballot, with the misleading claim that it would kill jobs. Issue 5 also survived a court challenge.

Yet the idea of raising wages is quite popular among voters. A September poll showed about 60 percent support the measure — twice as many as those who oppose it.

Full-time workers in Arkansas who are paid the current minimum wage earn about $17,680 a year, according to a new study by the National Employment Law Project, which supports Issue 5. The study estimates that increase would boost incomes for about 300,000 people in the state — about one in four workers. By 2021, when the full $11 minimum wage is phased in, these workers will be earning about $1,040 more per year.

Raising the minimum wage has even become a divisive issue in the state’s congressional races.

Three of Arkansas’s four members of Congress in the House of Representatives (all four are Republicans and all are facing reelection) have come out against Issue 5, saying it will hurt the local economy. Meanwhile, the four Democrats running against them support the minimum wage increase.

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