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Oxfam study aims to unite Congress to raise minimum wage

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A group that normally dedicates its efforts to international development against poverty turned its focus inward to the United States to address the current minimum wage and income debate in a new study released Wednesday.

For Oxfam America, increasing the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour is a timely issue of morality, economics and relief.

"The reality is, today, millions of hardworking Americans are falling farther and farther behind," Oxfam President Raymond Offenheiser said in a panel press conference Wednesday. "For them, the American dream is a distant and fuzzy mirage."

The new study, which aims to unite Congress to raise the minimum wage, comes with online interactive maps that allow users to highlight any of the 435 congressional districts in the country to see Oxfam's findings. The maps break down the data by gender, the number and percentage of working families living below the poverty level, and the number of working families that receive government aid, such as food stamps.

"The minimum wage should not be a partisan battle at all," Offenheiser said. The study finds that an increase in minimum wage to $10.10 would help 19.6 percent of workers living below the poverty level in Republican-held districts and 18.4 percent of workers in Democratic-held districts.

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Oxfam's study found that most low-wage workers are women. About 20 percent of all women have jobs that are below or just at the minimum wage, and 55 percent of workers who would be affected by a wage increase are women. Oxfam says that with an increase in wages, women would also decrease the gap separating what men and women earn.

Zeynep Ton from the MIT Sloan School of Management addressed business owners' concerns about covering the costs of a wage increase.

"If done right, higher wages can be great for companies and their customers," Ton said. She said companies do not recognize that jobs with low wages contribute to service and operational problems that can cost more money.

Fr. Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, said there are similarities in the Catholic church between Pope Leo XIII, who in 1891 called for the right for all workers to receive wages fit for their families, and Pope Francis today, who calls for an economy that stops excluding people.

"Our faith tells us that raising the hourly minimum wage is not just an economic issue, it's a moral issue," Snyder said. "People who work full time should not live in poverty."

If a person works full time for a family of three with the current hourly federal minimum wage of $7.25, it puts them about $4,000 under the poverty line, the study reports.

Contributing to the panel was Joanna Cruise, a single mother of two, who earns minimum wage as an overnight clerk at a convenience store. "For me, the biggest challenge I face is getting my children fed," she said.

"If you want to find solutions to the problems people face while living in poverty, people who actually live in poverty should be a part of this discussion," she said.

[Nicholas Sciarappa is an NCR Bertelsen intern. His email address is nsciarappa@ncronline.org.]

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