Mitt Romney
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

In August 1963, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin organized the March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom. The “freedom” part is what people remember, because the march, and Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, led to passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The “jobs” part called for a “massive federal works program” and “full and fair employment,” including a $2 federal hourly minimum wage.

At the time of the march, the minimum wage was $1.15 per hour for most workers and $1 per hour for workers in retail, transit, construction, gas stations, and service jobs. The following week the federal hourly wage minimum was scheduled to rise to $1.25.

The marchers didn’t get their minimum-wage hike. It would be another 11 years before the federal hourly minimum wage reached $2, and by then $2, thanks to inflation, was the equivalent of $1.26 in Aug. 1963—only one penny more than the stingy hike that the marchers had protested. Compared to the current minimum wage, though, $2 per hour was a princely sum. It was the equivalent of $10.72 per hour today. If that doesn’t sound like much to you, keep in mind that the federal minimum wage for the last dozen years has been stuck at $7.25. That’s less even than the $1 rock-bottom minimum in August 1963. (All these calculations are derived from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ inflation calculator.)

Imagine if, after the March on Washington, the number of water fountains marked “White” and “Colored” had quadrupled. That’s more or less what’s happened, six decades later, to the 1963 march’s protest against a miserly minimum wage.

Presidential candidate Donald Trump was all over the map on the minimum wage in 2016, suggesting variously that it was too high, that it shouldn’t exist at all, and that it should exist only at the state level. Finally he settled on raising it to $10, but as president he never lifted a finger to make it happen. (In an October debate Trump attacked Joe Biden for supporting a $15 wage minimum, then said wage minimums should be set at the state level, and then, when it was pointed out that he’d recently said he’d consider a $15 federal minimum, said “I would consider it to an extent.”)

Which brings us to today, when Democrats in the House and Senate re-introduced the Raise the Wage Act. The bill would increase the federal wage minimum gradually to $15 by 2025, at which time various “sub-minimum” wages for tipped workers, young people, and disabled workers would be replaced by the federal minimum. The bill would also index the wage minimum to increases in median wage growth, eliminating the necessity for Congress to fight over minimum wage in the future.

Republicans hate having to argue about the minimum wage, because polls show it’s extremely popular; at the state level, ballot initiatives to increase wage minimums seldom fail. Even Republican voters tend to favor increasing the minimum wage. That’s why Trump felt so conflicted by the issue; he was torn between wanting to do the popular thing and not wanting Larry Kudlow’s head to explode. Kudlow was director of Trump’s National Economic Council, and nobody hates the minimum wage more than he does.

Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell managed to keep the Raise the Wage Act off the Senate floor after the Democratic-controlled House passed it in July 2019. That spared Republican senators from having to vote against a minimum wage hike at a time when the wage minimum was set at a level that the 1963 marchers would have considered table scraps. But now the Senate is Democratic, and there will be a vote. That gives Republicans a chance to rid themselves of this issue forever by voting in future indexing.

This is not rocket science, but it seems to elude most Republican officeholders. As Paul Glastris has pointed out, President Bill Clinton used the minimum wage issue very effectively to beat up his Republican challenger, Bob Dole, in 1996. As a candidate for Massachusetts governor in 2002, Mitt Romney grasped that this was a loser issue for Republicans, and he came out in favor of indexing state minimum-wage hikes. He continued to favor indexing on the presidential campaign trail in 2012 until Kudlow, then a CNBC pundit, cowed him into retreating.

Romney got it right the first time. Now that he’s acquired more backbone, he should show it off by reverting to his previous position, and getting some other Republicans to join him. If any of them fret that they’ll be caving in to civil rights marchers from 1963, they should know that a federal minimum of $15, after inflation, is about two bucks less than what King demanded in August 1963. Like the other dream that King spoke of that day, a genuinely decent wage minimum will likely remain out of reach for some time.

Timothy Noah

Follow Timothy on Twitter @TimothyNoah1. Timothy Noah is a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly. He is the author of The Great Divergence: America's Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It.