ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Here's a number for you: 725. That's the minimum hourly wage in the United States, as set by the federal government. It hasn't budged in four-and-a-half years. President Obama is pushing to increase it. Some state and local governments are doing that on their own. As 2013 draws to a close, we're hearing about the year in numbers
Today, NPR's Scott Horsley on 725.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: 725 is a number that Mary Coleman knows all too well.
MARY COLEMAN: I work at Popeye's here in Milwaukee. I make $7.25 an hour.
HORSLEY: Coleman, who's 59-years-old, has years of experience behind a fast-food counter. She's worked at McDonalds and Burger King, as well as Popeye's. And whether she's manning a cash register or a deep-fat fryer, she's always earned the minimum that federal law will allow.
COLEMAN: I gets up every day and go to work for that 7.25. Faithfully, I'm there before time. I'm there after time.
HORSLEY: Early this year, in his State of the Union address, President Obama called on Congress to raise the minimum wage to$9 an hour, and to adjust it automatically with the cost of living in the future. That didn't happen. But as he told supporters earlier this month, the president now backs an even more ambitious plan from two congressional Democrats that would gradually boost the minimum to more than $10 an hour.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It's well past the time to raise a minimum wage that in real terms...
OBAMA: ...right now is below where it was when Harry Truman was in office.
HORSLEY: Mary Coleman says that would make a big difference in her household budget, which is often stretched thin - buying groceries, warm clothes, and school supplies for her grandchildren.
COLEMAN: It's so much that's needed. And that's not counting the wants. The needs overpower the wants.
HORSLEY: Nineteen states already have minimum wages that are higher than the federal government's. New York and New Jersey on January 1st. Thirteen states are raising their minimums in the New Year, either because of new laws or automatic cost-of-living adjustments. Still, not everyone is convinced that a higher minimum is the way to go.
DAVID NEUMARK: The minimum wage is a pretty blunt way - that is a not very effective way - to try to help low-income families.
HORSLEY: David Neumark is an economist at the University of California at Irvine. He says the government already offers more targeted anti-poverty programs, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit which primarily helps low-wage workers with children.
NEUMARK: What's happened over the last nearly 40 years now is the Earned Income tax credit has gotten a lot more generous at the same time that the minimum wage has, arguably, gotten somewhat more stingy.
HORSLEY: Neumark says while raising the minimum wage would help some workers, it would also discourage employers from hiring others, or from giving their workers more hours. Economist Jared Bernstein, of the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, concedes there is some cost to a higher minimum. But so long as the increase is modest, he says that shouldn't be a big concern.
JARED BERNSTEIN: You'd be hard pressed to find an issue that's been more studied by economists than this one. And the conclusion of lots of research is that moderate increases in the minimum wage have nothing like the job loss effects, that the opponents claim.
HORSLEY: A Washington Post-ABC poll this month found two-thirds of Americans support raising the minimum wage. President Obama promises to keep the pressure on.
OBAMA: I agree with those voters, and I'm going to keep pushing until we get a higher minimum wage for hard-working Americans across the entire country. It will be good for our economy. It will be good for our families.
HORSLEY: In the meantime, the key number for Mary Coleman and three and a half million other working Americans remains 725.
Scott Horsley, NRP News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.