The push for higher wages has seen some states, but not North Carolina, raise the minimum wage. (Image via Shutterstock)
The push for higher wages has seen some states, but not North Carolina, raise the minimum wage. (Image via Shutterstock)

North Carolina kept its minimum wage at $7.25 while most other states boosted pay this year.  

More than half of the nation’s states — 26 of them — opted to raise their minimum wages in 2022 to address gaps between what people make and what it costs to get by.

But North Carolina wasn’t among them. 

The minimum wage here is $7.25, the lowest it can go under federal rules, and has been so since 2009.

Meanwhile, in Virginia and Arkansas, people are now making at least $11 an hour, and $10 an hour in Florida. The highest state minimum wage is in California, where it’s $15 an hour, and in Washington, D.C., people are guaranteed to make $15.20 —more than twice North Carolina’s guaranteed pay rate.

There have been plenty of efforts over the last 13 years to raise wages in North Carolina and the 19 other states with an effective $7.25 minimum wage. Those efforts just haven’t gone anywhere.

Among those fighting for higher wages is state Rep. Kandie Smith, a Greenville Democrat. She’s joined others in introducing several pieces of legislation to raise the minimum wage to $15, but can’t get Republican leadership and colleagues to consider the proposal.

“It’s frustrating that North Carolina has not moved forward, and we have not moved forward in years,” she told Cardinal & Pine.

Too many people in her part of Eastern North Carolina are working multiple jobs just to squeak by, and low wages make it difficult, if not impossible, to secure safe housing or regularly put food on the table without worry, she said.

“We have to learn to put people first,” she said about raising wages. “If we do not put people first, we all fail.”

Nor has a push to change things for the country all at once gone any better.

North Carolina’s Rev. William Barber II was among those that advocated, without success, to have $15-an-hour wages included in Congress’ coronavirus relief and infrastructure packages. The co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign has repeatedly said that the working poor, and particularly those of color, can’t begin to meet their basic needs on $7.25 an hour.

“We cannot address racial equity if we do not address the minimum wage of $15,” Barber wrote in an op-ed last year. “There’s no such thing as racial equity when you just address police reform and prisons but you don’t address the issue of economic justice.”

NC Rep. Kandie Smith
State Rep. Kandie Smith, D-Pitt, at the legislature. Smith has been an advocate for raising the minimum wage, saying it’s sorely needed in her eastern North Carolina district. (Image via Facebook)

A Living Wage

While critics say a minimum wage jump would make it difficult for small businesses to operate, some experts have pointed out that workers who are paid more have more money to spend in their communities.

“Workers really are the backbone of the economy,” said Alexandra Forter Sirota of the NC Budget and Tax Center. “If they’re not doing well, the economy is not going to do well. They won’t be able to pay the rent to their landlord, they won’t be able to keep their children in childcare.”

Nearly half of Black and Latino families, and close to 40% of American households overall, don’t make enough to cover their basic needs, according to 2019 data, the most recent federal data available.

North Carolina’s living wage, an estimation of how much it takes to support a household, is $38.01 an hour for an adult with two children, according to MIT researchers. A single person needs an hourly wage of $14.72, according to the research.

A $15 federal minimum wage would go a long way toward helping many families. Not only would it help lift a significant number of people out of poverty, it would also decrease dependence on social safety net programs like food stamps, housing vouchers, and child care assistance, according to a report last year out of the left-leaning Brookings Institute.

So, how could North Carolina see its minimum wage go up? There are two main ways.

First, we could see a change at the federal level if Congress were to pass a law increasing the minimum wage for everyone in the nation. That would change things for people in all 50 states. 

Or, state lawmakers in Raleigh could move on their own to increase the minimum wage, like their colleagues did in the 26 states that saw increases this year. Some of these states also tied the minimum wage to inflation. If North Carolina did that, our people would be making upwards of $9 an hour now.

Smith, the Greenville state representative, said she plans on continuing her push for better wages and hopes others join her.

“If we don’t value the people that work for us, it’s hard for us to value anything else,” she said.