Let’s raise the minimum wage

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Editor’s note: A previous version of this op-ed was published on Berkeleyside.

I am a person who escaped poverty with education and a minimum-wage job.

In so many ways, I was lucky. My cousin and her husband, both campus police officers, raised me as their own son after my mother passed away from cancer when I was 6 years old. Through their love and guidance, I came to believe that if I worked hard enough, anything was possible.

I put myself through college by working the night shift flipping hamburgers at McDonald’s for minimum wage. My first year, I worked from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. and then would get myself to chemistry class that same morning, tired but determined to build a better life. The rest of the way, I worked in the restaurant industry for minimum wage and tips.

I was motivated because I knew then, just as I know now, how education can transform a life — including my own. Many of my friends weren’t so lucky. Some never had the opportunity to earn a living wage. A few landed in jail or got caught up in street violence. And, sadly, a few even ended up dead.

I was determined to find another way. But I also had a way to help myself by working. It wasn’t a great job flipping burgers, but it paid enough to help make ends meet.

You can’t say the same thing about the same job today. The purchasing power of a minimum-wage income peaked way back in 1968.

Last month, Richmond City Council — a body on which I proudly served — gave its initial approval to increase its minimum wage to $12.30 per hour by 2017. Final approval is expected next week.

And last week, Berkeley City Council heard advocates urging the adoption of a $10.74 minimum wage for employees in Berkeley. It will have a special meeting May 1 on a minimum-wage ordinance.

Please, join me in advocating a “yes” vote in the strongest possible terms.

Opponents say these increases will drive jobs to other communities — but we have a growing consensus in the Bay Area that is quickly making that argument moot.

San Jose voters recently raised their city’s minimum wage. San Francisco already has a local ordinance. Citizens of Oakland are starting a petition drive to raise their city’s minimum wage.

Many in the Bay Area delegation in Congress are fighting to increase the federal minimum wage, including Rep. George Miller. I’m grateful for their leadership. But the working poor in the Bay Area can’t wait for Washington, D.C., to act.

I know because I’ve been there myself.

With Richmond, Berkeley and Oakland all considering minimum wage increases this year, the East Bay can be the model for the rest of the state. We have some of the wealthiest residents and some of the poorest — and our income disparity is one of the highest in the state. If we can pass and sustain a higher minimum wage, so can the rest of California.

Tony Thurmond directs youth and truancy programs at Lincoln Child Center and is a former Richmond City Council member and school board member. He is currently running for California State Assembly, District 15.

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