Why it’s time to raise the wage: An interview with State Rep. Christian Mitchell

Conlon Dunn

Representative Christian Mitchell

Christian Mitchell is the State Representative for Illinois’ 26th district. He is one of the chief co-sponsors of House Bill 3718, which would raise the minimum wage in Illinois to $10.65 by 2016. Christian graduated from the University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in Public Policy Studies and began his career as a community organizer with Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation.

Why do you support increasing the minimum wage in Illinois?

It’s a basic American value that no one should work full-time and live in poverty. But a lot of folks are suffering from that right now. When people think of minimum wage workers they think of teenagers with their first jobs. But statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that due to the Great Recession there are people who are trying to support a household on a minimum wage job. We haven’t raised the minimum wage in a number of years and it is at its lowest point in terms of real purchasing power since its inception. These are real problems for ordinary working people who are just trying to make it.

Plus, raising the minimum wage would be good for our economy. We are a demand-side economy. What actually creates jobs in this country is consumers having money to buy products. The people that drive our economic growth are the middle class. Folks are going to go out and spend money at the local small business, the local pharmacy, the local grocer.

Seattle has been in the news recently for brokering a deal to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour. Do you support a minimum wage of $15 an hour in Illinois?

The bill that I’m currently a co-sponsor of in the General Assembly is $10.65. But I’d absolutely be willing to look at it. $15 isn’t exactly an exorbitant wage and it would be a boost to our economy and helpful to working families. I don’t tend to say yay or nay before I see a bill, but that’s absolutely a concept that I could support.

How much of the push by elected officials to raise the minimum wage is attributable to the fact that government can raise the minimum wage—a popular policy change—without bearing the cost directly—unlike increasing investment in education or training?

I think it’s really fundamentally a values question. When society advances it is often because law advances. When you talk about the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and other seminal moments in American history such as Social Security and Medicare—the government took the lead on making an investment in things that make all of us successful.

A majority of Fortune 500 companies are turning record profits, yet the middle class is suffering in a real and abiding way. There is this gap between wages and productivity that is at an all-time high in a way we haven’t seen in years. The real economy has become separated from the stock market in a troubling way. That’s a time when the bully pulpit and the moral authority that is vested in us as elected officials ought to come to bear. That’s a time to start taking meaningful steps to support the middle class. That’s what I think this is about.

If you could wave a magic wand and do one thing to reduce poverty, what would it be?

It would be education in two parts. One part would be universal early childhood education for every family who is struggling to pay for it right now. I’m a Montessori kid myself. Without the education I received I wouldn’t have survived some of the economic downturns we saw as a family. I went through some difficult times as a kid, but it was only because of the early investment my mother had made in education that I’m able to be where I am now.

On the other side, we have this broken education funding formula in the state of Illinois. Where you live determines your access to high-quality public education. Because we fund our schools primarily with property taxes, your zip code determines whether you have a quality neighborhood school. In an era where you earn what you learn, those who are born in and around the most wealth get the best education and continue the cycle. Those who are born into poverty are going to not-so-great schools and thus are less qualified for jobs. The number of jobs that require a bachelors degree or at least a high school diploma have skyrocketed. If you can’t get a competitive 21st-century education, you’re screwed.

If I were thinking about what would alleviate poverty over the long-term, what would immediately start to improve the life prospects of the people I represent, it would be making sure everyone has access to great early childhood education and great post-secondary education as well.

Will the Illinois General Assembly vote to raise the minimum wage?

I’m optimistic. It’s wildly popular among Democrats and Republicans. The idea that we could immediately inject more money into the pockets of people who are going to go spend that money is appealing across a broad range of economic and political perspectives. Because of that, I think it’s got a great shot.

Feature Photo: cc/(Static Bob)

Scarlett Swerdlow
Scarlett Swerdlow is a staff writer for the Chicago Policy Review and is an MPP student at the Harris School of Public Policy. She is interested in public finance (public pension) issues.