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If minimum wage is raised, who benefits?

Congress has started a debate on raising the $5.15-an-hour minimum wage. The Senate rejected a big hike Wednesday.

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Keisha Walker, for one, is happy that Congress is at least debating whether to raise the minimum wage. For her, boosting it to $7.25 would mean earning an extra $1 an hour – enough to pay for eight months of groceries or perhaps a few nights out.

An office assistant for a low-income apartment complex in Atlanta, earning $6.25 an hour, Ms. Walker is one of 139,000 Georgians who would benefit directly from a minimum-wage hike. A technical school dropout and mom in her late 20s, she scratches together a living, relying on her fiancé to pay major bills.

"They need to raise it if only to help people pay for [rising] rent," she says, returning by bus from taking her two sons and a nephew to football practice. "It's getting so you can't survive in this country."

Such a raise looks unlikely, with the Senate Wednesday voting down a wage-hike amendment and a House committee poised to do the same. Still, the debate focuses attention on people at the very lowest wage rungs. When adjusted for rising living costs, those earning minimum wage make less per hour today than they have in the past 51 years. A glimpse at this low-wage workforce shows a broad blend of faces and backgrounds from teenage lifeguards to single moms, from immigrants to grandmothers, that, together, wage-hike proponents say, form an alliance of the chronically underpaid.

But whether the fortunes of these 8 million Americans, earning less than $7.25 an hour, would rise or falter under the first government-ordered wage hike in 10 years is the broader debate spreading from restaurant kitchens on Capitol Hill to the grocery store aisles of Atlanta.

"The typical minimum-wage worker is not a teenager earning side money," says Isaac Shapiro, an associate director at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning think tank in Washington. "Most minimum-wage workers, those most affected by the wage increase and those just above the minimum wage, their earnings can really be vital to their household economics."

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