Tuesday’s midterm elections were a victory for some of America’s lowest-paid workers.
Voters in two red states — Missouri and Arkansas — overwhelmingly approved ballot measures that will raise the minimum wage for nearly 1 million workers across both states.
In Missouri, Proposition B passed with 62 percent of the vote. The measure will gradually hike the current minimum wage of $7.85 to $12 per hour by 2023. And workers will start getting bigger paychecks when the first increase goes into effect in January, with wages rising to $8.60 an hour.
In neighboring Arkansas, 68 percent of voters approved Issue 5, which will raise the minimum wage from $8.50 to $11 within the next three years. Workers in Arkansas will get bigger paychecks after the first increase goes into effect in January, with wages rising to $9.25 an hour.
The success of both ballot measures reflects growing frustration among low-wage workers in the United States, whose incomes have hardly budged, even as the US economy continues to expand.
It also points to an effective solution: asking voters for a raise when all else fails.
In both states, workers have been unable to get Republican state lawmakers to raise the minimum wage. Congress has mostly ignored calls to raise the federal minimum wage, too (it’s been $7.25 for a decade now). So the only remaining option was to ask voters to weigh in.
“Voters across the political spectrum are fed up with politicians who pay lip service to the dignity of work but do nothing to reward struggling, hardworking families,” Jonathan Schleifer, executive director of the Fairness Project, said in a statement Tuesday. The DC nonprofit was one of several organizations that helped put the minimum wage measures on the ballot.
Polling showed that both measures have wide public support, despite repeated Republican efforts to block any increases to the states’ minimum wage. Now Arkansas and Missouri will join a growing number of states that are raising the minimum wage at a time when 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 the solid blue states. For example, Arizona, Colorado, and Maine boosted the minimum wage this year to about $10 an hour, and it will reach $12 an hour by 2020.
Republicans and business groups in Arkansas and Missouri have tried to derail efforts to get the minimum wage measures on the ballot, but both have managed to survive.
Here’s what it took to raise the minimum wage in both conservative states, and why it was needed.
Arkansas families are struggling
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. The passage of Issue 5 means that those 300,000 workers will get a raise in January and the following two years.
Arkansas workers have been trying to raise the minimum wage for a while now. 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 predictable, misleading claim that it would kill jobs. Issue 5 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.
Missouri’s wage increase is even higher than that.
Missouri voters gave workers a 53 percent raise
More than 600,000 workers in Missouri will get a raise following the passage of Proposition B. The increase is higher than the one approved in Arkansas, but is phased in over a longer period of time. By 2023, the minimum wage will reach $12 per hour.
Right now, the minimum wage in Missouri is $7.85, barely higher than the federal minimum of $7.25. The last time the state raised the minimum wage was also through a ballot initiative, in 2016, when 75 percent of voters approved it.
Every year since at least 2014, Republican lawmakers in Missouri have voted down proposals to increase the minimum wage. The last time that happened was in January, when two Democratic lawmakers introduced two separate bills: one that would have eventually raised the wage floor to $12 an hour, and another that would have raised it to $15. Neither bill made it to the floor for a vote.
Instead, the Republican-controlled state legislature tried to block local efforts to raise wages. In 2017, the state passed a law barring cities and counties from raising the minimum wage above the state minimum.
The only way to raise wages, then, was to take the issue directly to voters. In May, labor groups collected more than 120,000 signatures to add the question to the November ballot.
About 677,000 workers in the state will get a raise in January under Proposition B, according to a similar analysis by the National Employment Law Project. That includes 36,500 seniors who are working past retirement age.
Both ballot measures add up to millions of dollars in extra earnings for the lowest-paid workers in each state. In Arkansas, Issue 5 will pump an extra $400 million into the paychecks of low-wage workers over the next three years, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute. Proposition B will give workers in Missouri an extra $870 million in additional wages over five years.
The overwhelming approval of both ballot measures is a sign that such a strategy could work in other conservative states. There are 21 states, mostly in the South, where workers still earn the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.