Today’s New York Times contains an excellent editorial that calls for a raise in the minimum wage for tipped workers. That wage now stands at a shockingly low $2.13 an hour. Want to take a guess about which category of our work force is more likely than any other to live in poverty? The Times says that, according to Census data, it’s servers. Given the miserable wages they’re paid, that should surprise no one.

The Times doesn’t make note of this, but raising the minimum wage for tipped workers is very much a women’s issue and a racial justice issue. Women and people of color are disproportionately represented among tipped workers — two-thirds of tipped workers are women, and forty percent are people of color.

No doubt the racist history of our employment laws, which excluded many disproportionately African-American occupations like domestic service and agricultural labor from the New Deal reforms that protected other workers, is the main reason for the sub-minimum wage for tipped employees. The Times editorial fills in some of the background:

The sub-minimum “tipped” wage was first instituted in 1966, when it was set at 50 percent of the minimum wage. At the time, that was an improvement. Until then, the restaurant industry had successfully lobbied Congress to deny tipped workers any minimum-wage protection, leaving them to live on tips alone. Over the next 30 years, the tipped wage sometimes rose as high as 60 percent of the minimum wage, but it never fell below 50 percent, reaching its current level of $2.13 an hour in 1991.

American workers desperately need a raise, and no group deserves it more than those who toil at the low end of the wage scale, who have been ravaged the most by this brutal economy. And by helping these workers, we can stimulate the economy as a whole. Here’s what the Times says:

It is a national disgrace when hard work, in any industry, leaves workers in poverty. But falling living standards and economic hardship among tipped workers signal prolonged stagnation throughout the economy. That’s because employment growth in restaurants and bars has outpaced growth in nearly all other sectors in recent years, including health care, manufacturing, retail and financial services. If wages in food-service and other service jobs are not lifted, it is hard to see where adequate consumer demand will come from to generate and sustain a real recovery.

The Times notes that there’s a bill in Congress to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and the tipped minimum to 70 percent of that, or $7.07. It’s hardly adequate, but it’s a start. It should be strongly supported.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee