Last week, members of the House and Senate announced a bill to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, more than double the current rate. The Pay Workers a Living Wage Act, sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and in the House by Democratic Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Raúl Grijalvaset (D-Ariz.), would raise the minimum wage to $10.50 by next year and then gradually phase in a wage floor of $15 by 2020.
It's an unprecedented proposal with an uncertain political fate: Democrats in Congress have previously backed legislation for $10.10 and $12 an hour, but a federal minimum of $15 is new territory.
The legislation is also a sign of how rapidly the political landscape has changed on the issue of fair pay. The Fight for $15, a national movement of fast food and low-wage workers that pushed Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle to adopt a $15 basic wage, has shifted the national narrative about the cost of living and what it means to survive on the minimum wage.
Far from lifting workers out of poverty, the current minimum wage keeps them well below it: even working full-time, the current minimum—unchanged since 2009—leaves a family of four $9,000 short of the federal poverty threshold.
Which is probably why families seem to be at the center of the congressional push to raise it, including the most recent proposal for $15 an hour. “Raising the minimum wage to $15 would give at least 25 million hard-working Americans—including six million working moms—a raise, lift as many as six million people out of poverty, and infuse more than $32 billion into our national economy,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), also a co-sponsor, said in a statement.
Jackson Lee's focus on families makes sense: according to data from MIT, more than one-third of families earned less than a living wage in 2014. And single parents were the most vulnerable to poverty, with 86.5 of all single parents and 89.8 percent of single moms earning below the living wage.
But while the bill may signal a monumental shift in the national conversation, it turns out that a $15 minimum wage still isn't a living wage for single parents no matter where they live.
I used MIT's living wage calculator to compare basic costs across the country, and they offer a pretty straightforward definition of what goes into it:
The living wage model is an alternative measure of basic needs. It is a market-based approach that draws upon geographically specific expenditure data related to a family’s likely minimum food, child care, health insurance, housing, transportation, and other basic necessities (e.g. clothing, personal care items, etc.) costs.
So is $15 an hour a living wage for full-time workers? For millions of single Americans and two-headed households, yes. According to MIT's calculations, it won't make things cushy—particularly in cities with high housing costs—but it's a considerable lift.
But $15 an hour still falls short of anything resembling a living wage for single parents. In fact, it doesn't constitute a living wage for single parents working full-time in any of the 50 states, according to MIT's living wage calculator. Here's how $15 stacks up across the country against the average living wage for a single parent with one kid:
Data from MIT's Living Wage Calculator and fusion.silk.co
Looking at state averages, things come closest in Kentucky, with an $18.67/hr living wage for a single parent with one kid. But in Washington, D.C., that number is $30.42. In Massachusetts, it's $26.38. In New York, where a wage board just voted unanimously to pass a $15 minimum wage proposal for fast food workers, it takes an average of $26.19/hr to cover basic costs for a family of two.
It's clear from the numbers that, for single parents, the rise of the $15 minimum wage will be a welcome relief, but it's not a silver bullet. As Teresa Ghilarducci, a professor of economic policy at the New School, recently told Fusion, in order to make minimum wages more livable, they need to be packaged with other reforms, like paid sick and family leave, affordable healthcare and childcare, and universal preschool.
Congressional Democrats' $15 minimum wage bill may not stand a chance of advancing, but it should provoke more conversation about what constitutes a living wage. Because it's clear from the data that, for far too many working families, better still isn't enough.