Escaping poverty

Republicans in the Alabama Legislature who three years ago road-blocked Birmingham’s attempt to raise the minimum wage in that city should be forced to live for a year on the federal guideline of $7.25 an hour.

That might change their opinion.

Alabama has no state-mandated minimum wage, the federal minimum wage hasn’t changed since 2009, and cost-of-living expenses in the decade since the Great Recession have increased. At the American Institute for Economic Research, data show that what cost $100 in 2009 now requires $116.70. For someone earning $7.25 an hour, that’s not small potatoes.

This is relevant today because (a.) the federal minimum wage should be increased, and (b.) the federal lawsuit filed by the NAACP, Birmingham fast-food workers and others against the state is being watched this summer by cities across the nation. Birmingham “is now ground zero in a new 21st-century fight against economic inequality and racial oppression, with implications for communities of color across the country,” Lucas Guttentag, professor at Stanford Law School and distinguished senior fellow at Yale Law School, wrote recently in an op-ed for The New York Times.

In Alabama-centric terms, this is classic Big Mule, Republican politics handed down from Montgomery. Birmingham’s City Council in February 2016 passed an ordinance that would eventually install a $10.10 minimum wage. Republican state lawmakers, claiming concerns that boosting minimum-wage workers would hurt small businesses in Birmingham -- and fearing other cities would follow Birmingham’s lead -- hurriedly passed legislation forbidding municipalities from setting minimum-wage standards. So even if Anniston or Oxford’s City Council wanted to install a minimum wage, it couldn’t.

Republicans claimed the legislation protected Alabama business interests. But they had no legitimate response to the fact that the state Legislature is overwhelmingly white, Republicans in the Statehouse are overwhelmingly white, and Birmingham is a majority-black city. And it’s clear that a $10.10 minimum wage would drastically improve the lives of thousands of low-income residents in Alabama’s largest city.

A district court dismissed the case. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this summer disagreed, writing that Alabama’s preemption law violated the 14th Amendment’s equal protection rights and that lawmakers’ legislation was “rushed, reactionary and racially polarized.” What happens with Birmingham’s case from here may decide how other cities and states handle this national issue.

We consider this yet another example of the Alabama Legislature preventing local control of local matters by duly-elected city and county officials. We agree with the base premise that higher wages may influence the bottom lines of small businesses. But there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. What’s good for majority-black Birmingham with thousands of minimum-wage workers isn’t necessarily swell for majority-white Oxford and its swath of service-industry jobs. Local control of local issues matters as much as improving the lives of Alabamians who have full-time jobs and still barely elude poverty.

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