In the midst of the First Great Depression, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins made the case for a federal minimum wage. In making her argument, she quoted the Massachusetts Commissioner of Labor and Industries:
‘These plants,’ he says, speaking of sweatshops, ‘are for the most part in charge of men of inferior business caliber who probably could not survive at all if it were not for their willingness to be entirely ruthless in exploiting labor.’
(Meteor Blades recounts the history of the minimum wage here.)
79 years later, in the midst of the Second Great Depression, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa has introduced a bill increasing the minimum wage to $9.88 an hour.
“If my proposal went through, a $15,000 a year worker will make $20,000 a year,” he says. “You know $5,000 a year is significant to someone in that category. [It] may not get them out of poverty, but it makes life better.”
The fact is, as shown in the charts below (click to enlarge), the federal minimum wage today is worth much less than it was in 1968—and it creates much more of a gap from the federal family poverty threshold.
Perkins didn’t believe that low-wage sweatshops were entirely to blame for the First Great Depression but she did think they had been a “serious contributing factor.”
Much the same is true today: the declining value of the federal minimum wage didn’t cause the Second Great Depression but, as Harkins fully understands, it is a serious contributing factor to its persistence.