This story was jointly produced by KUAR's Jacob Kauffman with PBS NewsHour.
This election, voters in several states including Arkansas will go to the polls and vote on proposals to raise the state minimum wage.
The Arkansas rate is $6.25 an hour. The state is one of three with a rate below the federal minimum wage, and that has political groups out canvassing neighborhoods to get support for the increase.
“We’re out here urging people to get out and vote,” says Gloria Smith.
She’s been going door to door in Little Rock neighborhoods asking people to vote for the increase.
The Arkansas minimum wage is one dollar less than the federal rate. Georgia and Wyoming are the only other states to have rates below the federal level.
The proposal on the Arkansas ballot would raise the rate – in stages – to $8.50 by January 2017.
Smith says such an increase is long overdue.
“It would help a lot of families, especially mothers that have children in daycare. A lot of people have to go to churches to get food to make out because they can’t afford to buy food,” she says.
She says she would like to see businesses pay employees more.
“I’d like to see businesses pay people what they’re worth,” Smith says.
Gregory Stewart, 36, would like to see employers pay a higher wage. He holds down two jobs throughout the year: at a restaurant and a ballpark. And still – to make ends meet – he and his two daughters had to move in with his mother and grandmother. He says raising his wages would make a huge difference in his family.
“As far as being able to get them the things that they need educationally – clothing, books, things of that nature – certainly being able to provide a good home life where they can have at least three very good meals a day and enhancing the home environment where they can feel comfortable at home and everything that comes with that.”
But Roger Lacy, who owns a janitorial service company, says he believes raising the minimum wage will actually hurt the people it intends to help. Lacy employs more than 200 workers. Most are part-time and nearly all earn the minimum wage. He says if the wage is raised, businesses will be far less likely to hire young people looking for their first job.
“My big opposition to the minimum wage is what it does to the teenage community. Currently about 24% of minimum wage workers are teenagers. And when you price the per hour rate to where people don’t want to hire them, then they won’t get on the ladder to getting a job. And that hurts the community, it hurts the teen.”
Lacy says a teen’s first job is an opportunity to learn life skills, and raising the minimum wage could reduce that opportunity for many teens.
Arkansas is one of five states where voters will decide this Fall whether to raise their state’s minimum wage. Ironically, four of the states are republican strongholds. Democrats are hoping these measures will help spur liberal-leaning voters to turn out in greater numbers, which could help Democratic candidates up and down the ballot.
“There’s a large number of voters that vote in presidential elections but drop off or don’t vote in off year elections. So issues like the minimum wage are meant to reach those voters and get them to the polls,” says Gregory Shufeldt, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
He says it’s no accident that in most of the states where minimum wage is on the ballot, there’s also a competitive Senate race.
In Arkansas, the race is between two-term incumbent Mark Pryor, the Democrat, and Republican US Representative Tom Cotton. Pryor is the first statewide elected official in Arkansas to support the minimum wage increase. Cotton – until recently – said he opposed minimum wage increases.
But just two days after the measure was officially placed on the ballot, he said he would vote for the November initiative.
With polls showing overwhelming support for the measure, Republicans have virtually no choice but to indicate approval, says Shufeldt.
“Looking at the polls, there’s really no incentive for Republicans to come out against this electorally. They might have philosophical reasons or economic reasons why they think it might be a bad idea, but politically it’s a non-starter for them,” he said.
That is certainly the case with State Representative David Branscum. He owns a cattle ranch and saw mill in northern Arkansas. He pays above the minimum wage but says as a businessman, he’s opposed to having the government dictate the wages he pays employees.
“The reality is in the small business environment that I’m in, I can only pay so much. I am dictated by the national markets, the lumber market, the tile market. They all tell me what I’m going to get. I have no control over that. But if the government is going to come in and say you’re going to have to do this and this’, then maybe I can’t. Maybe I shut down,” said Branscum.
But as Representative, Branscum says he will have to support the ballot initiative.
“That’s because 80% of the people are for it. I mean it’s hard to come out and be strongly opposed to a position when everybody wants to try to help everybody out. That’s why we’re here, to try to help people. But as a Republican, you don’t want to hurt business. So it’s a delicate balancing act that we have to do.”
Businessman Lacy is disappointed, but says he understands.
“This was a political gambit, to put Republicans in a position where they couldn’t say no. And if they were to say no, it would be used as a drumbeat to get the vote out. That’s largely why the Republicans are not taking a stand or they’re saying ‘yeah, I agree with it,” Lacy said.
Patrick Hays is the former Mayor of North Little Rock. A Democrat, he’s running for a US House seat in Arkansas’s most Democratic-leaning district. He recently greeted people at the Taste of the Town, an annual festival featuring local restaurants. He says he’s hopeful that with Republicans saying they support minimum wage measures, there may even be enough bipartisan cooperation to get a federal increase passed.
“There needs to be an increase and whether it’s $10.10 or whether it’s something less, I hope we could arrive at that on a bipartisan basis and then go forward because I think the country will benefit by that,” Hays says.
Prospects of a Federal increase are unlikely, with many Democrats – including Sen. Pryor – opposed to a higher rate, but passage of the five different state measures is likely, especially if history is any guide. Since 2002, 10 states have voted on minimum wage increases, and all 10 measures were approved with overwhelming support.