Progress, but not enough: a look back at Oregon’s recent minimum wage history


On July 1, workers in one region of Oregon achieved what once seemed an inspired goal. The minimum wage in the Portland metro area — not in the rest of the state — crossed the $15 an hour level, reaching $15.45.

But no horns blared, no crowds cheered, for this milestone arrived more than a decade after workers began agitating for a $15 hourly wage. This year’s increase, moreover, only keeps up with inflation, leaving the lowest-paid workers in Portland and elsewhere in the state well-short of what it actually takes to make ends meet.

With an adjustment to the minimum wage having just taken effect, it’s a good moment to take stock of the progress Oregon has made in raising the wage floor, and to recognize the need for more action to ensure workers earn enough to care for their families.

The movement for a $15 an hour wage began in 2012, when fast food workers in New York City walked off the job in protest of their low wages, triggering similar protests across the country. Fast food workers, like minimum wage workers generally, are disproportionately women and people of color.

This movement scored a victory in Oregon in 2016. Lawmakers agreed to raise the wage floor in staircase fashion, scheduling yearly increases through 2022. The legislature also did away with a uniform minimum wage, creating a three-tier system justified on the basis of differences in the cost of living. The Portland metro area got the highest wage floor, followed by other urbanized counties in the second tier, with rural counties making up the third tier.

Oregon’s lowest-paid workers experienced real gains. From 2016 to 2022, the minimum wage rose 23 percent in the middle tier after inflation. By the end of this period, most minimum wage jobs in Oregon no longer paid poverty-level wages. States like Oregon that substantially increased their minimum wage saw the wealth of workers, especially workers of color, grow faster compared to states that stood still.

This period also offered more proof that minimum wage increases can bolster economic activity. Contrary to the claims of naysayers, a recent study of counties that enjoyed large minimum wage increases found “significant positive employment effects.”

With the end of the scheduled increases, another provision in Oregon’s minimum wage law took effect. Starting this year, the minimum wage is adjusted to track inflation. The sharp rise in prices in recent years confirms the wisdom of this move.

Still, a minimum wage that only tracks inflation means the lowest-paid workers are treading water economically. They’re not falling behind, but they’re also not improving their standard of living.

And they are treading water far from a safe shore. Yes, Oregon’s minimum wages are no longer poverty wages. But that’s partly because the federal poverty line is set at an unrealistically low level.

A better measure of economic security is the Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE) analysis developed by United Way. Unlike the poverty line, ALICE takes into account all essentials: housing, child care, food, transportation, and more. It reflects what it actually takes to live and work in the modern economy. The most recent ALICE, released earlier this year, shows an astonishing 44 percent of Oregon households make too little to make ends meet.

How much a family needs to make ends meet varies by family size. According to ALICE, one parent raising one child in Oregon needed at least $21 an hour in 2021. With the spike in inflation over the past few years, that level is likely higher today.

Much remains to be done to ensure all Oregonians enjoy economic security. It’s not too soon for lawmakers to enact further, substantial increases to the minimum wage. They should also bolster policies that put money in the pockets of low-paid workers, like the Earned Income Tax Credit.

The past few years have seen progress, but still short of what workers need. Nevertheless, this progress gives hope that we can create a future where all Oregonians live with dignity.

Alejandro Queral is Executive Director of the Oregon Center for Public Policy; Kelly O’Lague is President and CEO of the United Way of the Columbia-Willamette

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