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People hold a rally on Oct. 2 outside a McDonald's restaurant in Detroit. They called attention to higher wages and the right to form a union in Michigan. Photo by Carlos Osorio of The Associated Press

Equal Voice

Election 2018: Wages and Work Remain a Focus for Families

November 6, 2018

Paul Nyhan
By Paul Nyhan
Manager of Storytelling

Immigration and voting are among the topics attracting national attention in Election 2018. But one topic, important for families, is being overlooked: Good wages for workers.

Election 2018 has been a season of anxiety, but beyond the attacks, tweeting and nail biting, a quieter force is shaping this season: largely stagnant wages for lower-income families.

In Missouri and Arkansas, for example, voters will decide whether to raise the minimum wage in their respective states. Wages and jobs also are influencing political races, such as the U.S. Senate race in Ohio. And labor strife has been a backdrop of this election cycle, with hotel workers in multiple cities on strike, following a series of dramatic labor actions by teachers in West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, Colorado and Kentucky.

Why is there a focus on wages and work in 2018? One reason is that lower-wage workers haven’t enjoyed real and sustained raises for a long time, nearly four decades to be exact, according to an economic analysis. Since 1979, workers in the bottom 10 percent of pay saw their paychecks increase a measly 0.2 percent annually, according to a report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). And for much of that time their pay was largely flat.

Meanwhile, families in the top 10 percent enjoyed far healthier raises. In 1979, those families made twice as much as middle-income households, and by 2017 that gap grew to 2.5 times, EPI found.

“Workers in the 10 percent are barely doing better than they were in 1979,” said Elise Gould, a senior economist at EPI.

But, there is more behind this year’s political interest in higher wages than often stagnant pay for American workers.

The campaign to raise wages for working families, exemplified by the work of Fight for $15, has broadened and gained momentum in recent years. This year alone, 18 states raised minimum wages, The Washington Post reported.

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Source: Economic Policy Institute

The growing work and traction of the Poor People’s Campaign also has intensified focus on issues that lower-income families face, including weak wage growth.

“I think there is more mobilization, more agitation,” observed Amy Traub, associate director for policy and research at Demos, a progressive Washington, D.C.-based think tank. The “economy is growing, but it not growing for everyone. They are not feeling it.”

There was a positive sign in October, though, when the U.S. Labor Department reported nominal wage growth hit 3.1 percent in October. There is a ways to go, however, before many families recover even the economic ground they lost in the Great Recession, Gould added.

Here are some of the top economic issues for families at the ballot box in Election 2018:

Minimum Wage

In Missouri, voters will decide whether to raise the statewide minimum wage to $12 an hour from $7.85. The initiative’s prospects look good, but even it passes the Republican-led Missouri state Legislature could move against it, St. Louis Public Radio reports.

Directly to the South, Arkansas will decide whether to boost its minimum wage from $8.50 an hour to $11, according to Vox.

Cities are also weighing initiatives to raise base wages, including in Oakland, California, and Flagstaff, Arizona.

“Based on the number of ballot measures out there and the political activity around wages and wage-related benefits it clearly is a topic that is alive and in front of voters and in people’s minds,” Eva Putzova, a member of the Flagstaff City Council and communications director for Restaurant Opportunities Center United, said. The “economy is doing well across the country…(yet) workers are not seeing the kinds of improvements to their standards of living they would expect.”


In California, voters will consider Proposition 10, a ballot initiative that would repeal the state’s 1995 Costa-Hawkins Rent Control Act. Costa-Hawkins prevents cities from extending rent control on condos, single-family homes and other units built after 1995 – or earlier in cities that had already implemented rent control. The law also permits landlords to raise rents by any amount on rent-controlled units if a tenant leaves or is forced out.

The repeal effort reflects how fallout from stagnant wages – families not earning enough to pay rising household costs – is also showing up in the 2018 elections, leaders at the Center on Policy Initiatives (CPI) in San Diego, California, suggest.

“All of these housing, rent control, workers, homelessness issues, at the end of the day when you look into what people are saying, and now the data shows it, all has to do with the declining values of a paycheck” for working families, Kyra Greene, CPI’s executive director, said.

If the economy continues to grow at a healthy rate, pressure at the ballot box and elsewhere for wages and work that reflect that health will continue.

“Working people are tired of not having a voice, and they are figuring ways” to be heard, Greene said.


Paul Nyhan is the senior writer for Equal Voice. Rose Aguilar, a San Francisco-based journalist, contributed to this story. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original and contracted Equal Voice content – articles, photos and videos – can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.

      2018 © Marguerite Casey Foundation

Election 2018: Wages and Work Remain a Focus for Families