Today’s New Deal

Frances Perkins and the Minimum Wage– By Leah Sprague

“[O]n the ability of the common man to support himself
hung the prosperity of everyone in the country.”
– Frances Perkins, People at Work (1934)

During her two-decades-long career in New York State, first as an activist and then as a public official in the administrations ofGovernors Al Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Frances Perkins advocated for minimum wage and maximum hour laws governing employment. When, in February, 1933, President-elect Roosevelt asked Perkins to serve in his cabinet as Secretary of Labor, she outlined for him a set of policy priorities she would pursue: a 40-hour work week; a minimum wage; unemployment compensation; worker’s compensation; abolition of child labor; direct federal aid to the states for unemployment relief; Social Security; a revitalized federal employment service; and universal health insurance.

Frances Perkins recognized the compassionate need to pay America’s workers a living wage, but also the connection between wages and the economic health of the country. In her first book in 1934, People at Work, she wrote:

It was no new thing for America to refuse to let its people starve, nor was it a new idea that man should live by his own labor, but it had not been generally realized that on the ability of the common man to support himself hung the prosperity of everyone in the country.

The President shared that viewpoint. In calling upon Congress in 1937 to consider his wage and hour legislation, as well as a prohibition against child labor, Roosevelt issued a message stating, “The exploitation of child labor and the undercutting of wages and the stretching of the hours of the poorest paid workers in periods of business recession has a serious effect on buying power.”

The Fair Labor Standards Act, enacted in 1938, was the last major legislation of the New Deal. It prohibited child labor and established statutory minimum wages and maximum hours and fulfilled, at last, Perkins’ goals of nationwide protections for workers engaged in interstate commerce. The Act set the minimum wage in 1938 at $.25/hour, to be increased in seven years to $.40/hour, with a forty-four hour work week, decreasing to forty hours in three years. A Wage and Hour Division was established within the Department of Labor to enforce the Act.

In her book, The Roosevelt I Knew, published in 1946, Frances Perkins noted:

At this writing, the law seems to be a permanent part of the legal structure and economic pattern of the United States.
Today, the federal minimum wage, set by Congress in 2007, is $7.25, or $290 for a forty-hour work week. Families depending upon minimum-wage jobs must rely upon food stamps and other public assistance in order to make ends meet. The Center for Economic and Policy Research estimates that minimum wage workers have lost more than $6 billion in wages since 2009 as inflation has eroded the purchasing power of the $7.25 wage. Currently pending in Congress is legislation to increase the minimum wage in three steps to $10.10/hour, with subsequent annual increases indexed to inflation. Numerous polls show that an overwhelming majority of Americans support this increase.

The remarks of William Leuchtenburg, William Rand Kenan Jr. professor emeritus of history, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, made at the Frances Perkins Center Garden Party and awards presentation August 14th, 2014.