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Eighty-one years ago, the American workforce was introduced to its first ever federal minimum wage.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938 signed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established an hourly minimum wage rate at 25 cents for covered workers. Today, the FLSA also sets standards for government and youth employees as well as overtime pay.
Now, a meme circulating the internet attempts to examine how Congress acts on minimum wage standards depending on which party is in power.
"Since 1938, the minimum wage has been raised 23 times," the post, in full, reads. "It was raised 21 times during Democratic congresses, and only twice during Republican ones. Still think both parties are the same?"
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We found the figures to be relatively solid.
The minimum wage has indeed gone up 23 times since 1938, when you count the year a minimum wage was established as a "raise" in itself. Some studies and reports put the number at 22, leaving the 1938 rate out of its tally, however.
According to the Congressional Research Service, the public policy arm of Congress, the minimum wage has been raised 22 separate times, through 10 separate amendments to the FLSA. Some amendments to raise the minimum wage contained one-time increases (e.g., 1949 amendments), while others contained multi-year increases (e.g., 1977 amendments). The minimum wage hasn’t been raised since the current federal rate of $7.25 took effect in 2009, which was the last of a series of increases previously signed into law by President George W. Bush.
(The federal minimum wage prevails in the 21 states that don’t mandate a higher one.)
Regardless if Congress voted for multi-year or single-year increases, it is correct that all but two raises came about when the Democrats held the majority, whether it was when the increases were approved or enacted.
Harry Holzer, professor of public policy at Georgetown University and a former chief economist at the Department of Labor, told us by email that the timeline sounds right.
"The Democrats controlled the House of Representatives for much time since 1938 and uninterrupted between 1955 and 1994; and they controlled the Senate for much of those time periods (but not 1981-86)," he wrote. "There were many minimum wage increases between 1955 and 1980, all passed by Democratic congresses. Since 1980, there have only been 3 increases voted on by Congress: 1991, 1996 and 2007. Only the middle of these came out of a Republican congress."
While various Republican presidents signed increases into law over the years, all did so while Democrats held the majority. The two times the rate was raised during a Republican majority were in 1996 and 1997, approval of which came after months of pressure from Democrats. The final vote was 74 to 24, with 27 Republicans joining all 47 Democrats in favor. President Bill Clinton signed that bill into law, which accounted for two raises over the two years, totaling at $5.15.
It is also important to clarify that it isn’t as if 22 distinct votes were held to raise the minimum wage, and that all those came during Democratic majorities and subsequently brought about increases. There were only about half as many votes – since some amendments covered multiple years of raises. Nevertheless, it is accurate that – besides the 1996 bill – the votes that did take place and the raises that were approved came about when Democrats held the majority.
There’s a reasonable explanation as to why: Many Republicans have long been wary of raising the federal rate. Opponents of doing so argue that such mandated wage increases could lead employers to cut positions, reduce hours or increase prices in order to stave off the reduced profits that may come from paying a higher wage.
Proponents, meanwhile, argue that by increasing earnings for lower income workers, employers reduce employee turnover and create more demand by giving workers more purchasing power.
That said, we feel compelled to note that eight of the times American workers saw an increase in the federal minimum wage, those increases were brought about by four separate amendments that were signed into law by Republican presidents: Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. Because some of these raises were implemented over the course of numerous years, eight Republican presidents were in office during years when the minimum raise hikes took effect.
A social media meme claims that since 1938, the federal minimum wage has been increased "23 times" and was raised "21 times during Democratic congresses, and only twice during Republican ones."
Including the introductory federal minimum wage in 1938, the rate has indeed been raised 23 times and 21 of those increases came during a Democratic majority in Congress. But sometimes the bills for increases came as a multi-year package, while others were just single-year raises. That said, four Republican presidents signed the laws that made these raises possible and eight Republican presidents were in leadership at the time these increases took effect.
The statement that Democrats controlled Congress 21 of 23 times the minimum wage was increased is accurate but needs clarification or additional information. We rate it Mostly True.
Facebook post, Feb. 11, 2019
Department of Labor, https://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/statutes/fairlaborstandact.pdf
Department of Labor, History of Federal Minimum Wage Rates Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, 1938 - 2009, Accessed Feb. 11, 2019
Department of Labor, Minimum Wage Laws in the States, Accessed Feb. 12, 2019
Senate.gov, Roll Call Vote 104th Congress - 2nd Session, July 9, 1996; Accessed Feb. 12, 2019
Congressional Research Service, Inflation and the Real Minimum Wage: A Fact Sheet, Jan. 8, 2014
Congressional Research Service, The Federal Minimum Wage: Indexation, Oct. 26, 2016
New York Times, Clinton Signs a Bill Raising Minimum Wage by 90 Cents, Aug. 21, 1996
Huffington Post, Amazon Called For Raising The Minimum Wage. Republicans Say It’s Fine As It Is, Thanks., Oct. 5, 2018
CQ Almanac, Congress Clears Wage Increase With Tax Breaks for Business, Accessed Feb. 12, 2019
Email interview, Harry Holzer professor of public policy at Georgetown University, Feb. 12, 2019
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