Upon journeying to the Nation's capital, I had the opportunity to give this speech to Representative Eliot Engel and his staff with the help of Ben Assa, Andrew Bernstein, and Zac Schneider:
Many Americans are currently struggling in the cycle of poverty, not able to feed their families and pay their bills. No hardworking American should have to think about the possibilities of homelessness or starvation. As teenagers, we are knowledgeable and aware that these issues occur in our nation and we are motivated to make a change. The current poverty rate in America is 12.3%, 12.8 million of those being children just like us. This problem stems from the overlying issue of minimum wage. The minimum wage is set too low for someone working for 40 hours per week, 52 weeks a year, to surpass the poverty line. In other words, someone working 5 and a half hours per day at minimum wage 365 days a year without any days off would have insufficient funds to support themselves, not including additional family members such as a partner or kids. This forces many Americans to work 2-3 full-time jobs in order to barely reach the poverty line. In 1968, the minimum wage in America reached its peak, but then lost 25% of its value over the preceding years. Since 2009, the minimum wage has not increased but has dwindled, losing 10% of its value since then. 29 states and the District of Columbia have set their minimum wage above the federal level of $7.25 an hour, and it is imperative that you, as a government official to take action to ensure that this becomes a nationwide initiative. Setting the minimum wage to increase yearly based on rising costs of living is currently the policy in 17 states as well right here in the District of Columbia. This policy ensures that the minimum wage does not diminish over time as it has in the past. Over two-thirds of small business owners favor increasing the minimum wage and setting it to the cost of living. The minimum wage cannot fluctuate on a state-to-state basis as it is unfair and unjust that people are paid less for doing the same long work hours in the same job just in a different state. This gives advantages to certain people depending on which state they reside in, which is unfair as most people have little say in where they live and don’t have the means to move to another state. Because women make up nearly two-thirds of minimum wage earners, raising the federal minimum wage is a crucial step towards closing the gender wage gap. An increase in the minimum wage is imperative if we expect full-time year-round workers to be able to support themselves. The minimum wage should be increased annually to keep up inflation and the rising living costs. This issue is extremely important to us as it not only includes classic American values but includes core values of the Jewish people.
As Reform Jews, we often learn about the importance of giving back and fighting for change. The Torah emphasizes the importance of the treatment of workers and fair wages in the codified labor law which states, “you shall not abuse a needy and [penniless] laborer… but you must pay him his wages on the same day, for he is needy and urgently depends on it”. The Talmud, the central text of Rabbinic Judaism and the source of Jewish law and theology, states “one who withholds an employee’s wage is as though he deprived him of his life”. It is extremely important that we support working americans and give them the ability to provide for themselves and their families. These two quotes from Jewish text, talk about the necessity of giving payment to impoverished individuals as soon as possible and not withholding payment from them, as it is that they receive payment when they need due to their lack of savings. Representative Engel, our common Jewish background with Representative Engel, traditions and values command us to help those in need in our community. We are told to “speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy”. We are determined to stand up and make a change, working to raise the federal minimum wage.
As a child of two immigrant families, I am extremely passionate about this issue. My mother's side of the family immigrated from the Soviet Union in 1979. My grandfather did drafting work for an engineering firm which was far beneath his education level, and my grandmother worked in a greeting card factory where she was making minimum wage. They both came to America with nothing but what was them in their pockets. Both of them working full-time jobs in order to help support my mom through school. My dad’s side of the family immigrated here from Cuba before Fidel Castro came to power. My Abuelo received a bachelor's degree in accounting in Cuba, but it was not honored in the United States. Luckily he had a connection to the cosmetics company Guerlain and made minimum wage as a salesperson there. Because he did not speak the language, he also had to put himself through school as well as support his wife and my dad. My Abuela worked as a receptionist at a jewelry company. My Grandma, my Abuela, and my Abuelo all made minimum wage. My mother especially saw the repercussions of this but was fortunate enough to succeed later in life. I know from personal experience that the current minimum wage needs to be raised in order to support the average person let alone a whole family.
We would like to thank Representative Engel for co-sponsoring the Raise the Wage Act (H.R. 582), which will level the playing field for hardworking Americans and allow workers to support themselves and their families with dignity. Your hard work will most definitely be impacting many poverty-stricken families across the United States. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us and listen to our ideas. Have an amazing day.
Cooper Cohen is an Aleph from Hudson Valley Region and is currently serving as his chapter's Godol. He also plays soccer and guitar.
All views expressed on content written for The Shofar represent the opinions and thoughts of the individual authors. The author biography represents the author at the time in which they were in BBYO.
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