A standard argument against raising the federal minimum wage is that employees who earn that baseline level of pay don't really need the extra income. After all, most low-wage workers are teenagers trying to earn a little spending money and gain some job experience.
But that belief is based on a false and outdated view of who mostly holds down these positions, according to a recent analysis from the Center for Economic and Policy Research. While more than a quarter of all low-wage workers were teenagers back in 1979, today only about one in 10 are teens, according to the liberal-leaning think-tank. Indeed, almost 37 percent of these employees on low wages, defined as less than $10.10 per hour, are between 35 to 64 years old.
"Low-wage workers today are much older and much better educated than they were at the end of the 1970s," wrote the CEPR's Janelle Jones and John Schmitt.
While the debate over raising the minimum wage continues at the federal level, states are already taking steps to boost their baseline pay. In May, Vermont passed legislation to enact what will become the country's highest baseline rate, at $10.50 an hour. Several other states, including Hawaii and Connecticut, have already boosted their minimum wages this year, while Seattle's city council has voted in favor of a $15 per-hour minimum wage.
"You don't want people working 40 hours a week and living in poverty," Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., noted last month, while speaking about his state's move to boost wages.
Because the minimum wage has remained unchanged since 2009, more and more Americans are falling behind, said Oxfam America president Raymond C. Offenheiser on a conference call Wednesday to discuss his group's new report, "Working Poor in America."
"I've visited many poor and conflicted areas of the world," such as Sudan, Offenheiser noted. "I've seen a lot of human struggle. What is quite striking is the increase in economic struggle right here at home."
Boosting the baseline pay to $10.10 an hour would benefit 25 million workers, Oxfam America said in the report. About two-thirds of workers earning less than $10 an hour say they either don't meet or just barely meet their basic living expenses, the study noted.
The discussion about raising the minimum wage is also increasingly centering on gender, given that the majority of the lowest-paid earners are women, at about 55 percent. When it comes to tipped workers -- who are only guaranteed $2.13 an hour -- the imbalance is even greater, with women constituting 73 percent of workers who depend on tips.
Raising the minimum wage "is especially important for women" given that female workers are more heavily concentrated in low-paying jobs, the White House said in a March report.
To be sure, the gender balance of low-wage earners has shifted away from women since 1979, when nearly two-thirds were female, the CEPR found. Men, meanwhile, now make up 45 percent of low-wage workers, up from one-third in 1979.
It's also worth noting that the center is looking at "low-wage" workers, rather than those earning minimum wage. Yet teens still make up a minority of those toiling at the baseline wage, at about 24 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. About half of minimum-wage employees are over 25 years old, and a quarter are between 35 to 64 years old.
Underscoring the importance of the debate is how the ranks of minimum-wage workers have surged following the Great Recession. In 2007, before the economic slowdown, there only 286,000 employees pulling in the nation's lowest hourly rate. Today, that's jumped more than fivefold to 1.6 million workers, the BLS notes.