This story is part of a larger package for The Reader and El Perico’s December issue about the state’s tight labor market.
Catherine Brauer, interviewed for October’s Omaha Jobs feature, was once a single mom with three young daughters. If Brauer worked full time at Nebraska’s minimum wage of $9 an hour, her yearly earnings would be around $18,720. That’s $7,780 less than the federal poverty level of $26,500 for a family of four. And even that’s better than states like Iowa and Kansas, which still use the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.
But Brauer told The Reader her kids needed more than just food in their stomachs and a roof over their heads — Brauer had to find money for child care, tutoring and extracurricular activities.
Community members like Brauer work multiple jobs, and it’s still not enough — around 10% of Nebraskans live in poverty. That’s why Nebraska Appleseed, a Lincoln-based nonprofit fighting for social justice, started Raise the Wage Nebraska: a ballot-initiative campaign to increase the state’s minimum wage. Raise the Wage Nebraska needs 130,000 petition signatures to get the Nebraska Minimum Wage Increase Initiative, which would gradually grow the minimum wage from $9 to $15 an hour by 2026, on the November 2022 ballot. The Reader discussed the campaign with Ken Smith, Nebraska Appleseed’s Economic Justice Program Director.
The Reader: What was the impetus for starting Raise the Wage Nebraska?
Ken Smith: As the pricing of necessities like housing and food have been going up, wages have not been increasing enough to allow people who work full-time jobs — and even two or three jobs — to make ends meet. It boils down to the fact that the minimum wage is, at its current level, falling well behind a living wage.
Our initiative automatically ensures that the rate of the wage increase mirrors increases in cost of living that Nebraskans will experience for years to come. The Nebraska Minimum Wage Increase Initiative seeks to not only incrementally increase the minimum wage, but also ... respond to changes in consumer prices over time.
TR: How would a higher minimum wage support marginalized communities?
One in nine U.S. workers is paid a wage that leaves them in poverty, and workers of color and women are all overrepresented within low-wage jobs. Raising the minimum wage would help at least start to decrease the racial and gender pay gap that has been an economic reality for a very long time. This is an effort to begin reversing decades of pay inequity.
TR: Tell me about the signature-gathering process.
KS: The way the requirements are written, you need signatures from different parts of the state. It’s great because we're in communities across Nebraska, talking about quality jobs and fair-wage issues. We do it in a way that builds grassroots power, and we're excited about all the conversations happening at farmers markets and on people's front porches.
TR: How do you sell the idea of a higher minimum wage to people who wouldn't usually get behind it?
KS: On a local and national level, people say employers will have to pass on the cost, and consumers will end up bearing the brunt of that. But whether you look at prior instances of wage increases in Nebraska ... or elsewhere across the United States, the overriding trend seems to be that raising the minimum wage boosts the economy. All the gloomy economic prognostications have turned out to be overwrought, if not plain wrong. Raising the minimum wage doesn't lead to job loss and consumer prices spiking. It decreases pay-equity gaps, leads to a lot of purchasing power for the consumer, drives the economy forward, and helps workers afford basic things and make ends meet.
It also bears mentioning that we intentionally structured the change to take place over time, to allow businesses to adapt to new wage levels. It’s not like the wage would go from $9 to $15 overnight; in fact, some folks thought it should happen faster than we ended up pursuing it. But we wanted to follow best practices, working with partners who have designed these types of policies in other states, to make sure we have the best possible policy for Nebraska.
TR: What does the future look like for Raise the Wage Nebraska?
KS: We're confident Nebraskans will stand up and say the current wage is not enough, and as a state, we're ready to ensure our wage laws mean that somebody who's working will have basic needs met for them and their family. Ultimately, it comes down to a notion of fairness and a values-based position, that having people work multiple jobs and still not able to make ends meet is not something Nebraskans will tolerate. We wouldn't be doing this if we didn't think we could succeed.
Editor’s note: The Reader’s sister publication, El Perico, is partnering with Catherine Brauer on promoting Latina makers.
From Nov. 2020 – Aug. 2022, Leah reported on social justice, including employment equity, economic justice, educational inequality, and the experiences and history of Nebraska’s LGBTQ+ community. Although she’s now pursuing a PhD in Communication, Information and Media at Rutgers University, Leah remains a diehard Reader fan and wholeheartedly supports all things Reader. You can connect with her via Twitter (@cates_leah).