Some 48 percent, or 3.5 million, are between 25 and 64 years old who, on average, contribute more than half of the income in their households, experts say. Raising the minimum wage is a $18.4 billion proposition that is supported by 83 percent of Americans, according to the Pew Center for the People and the Press.
"This is an issue that has to do with the fact that economic growth is not being shared equitably among all Americans," says a spokesman for Rep. George Miller (D) of California, who had introduced a minimum-wage bill last year.
Lanky, with a wide smile and a tight-knit straw hat on his head, Thomas, a Liberian immigrant who prefers not to give his last name, worked for five years as a gas-station attendant, never making more than $5.15 an hour. It was so little money he had to quit. He went freelance, selling mattresses on the street from the back of his beat-up Chevrolet truck. He rents a room with a friend in a flop house. He sends his extra money back home to Liberia – or gives it to needy people in his neighborhood.
"There's no way you can depend on one job anymore," says Thomas. "You have to get out there and hustle, have two or three different things going, to make it work. Everyone is suffering. They all tell you the same story."
According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, nearly a third of the workers who start at minimum wage are still working at that rate three years later. A quarter, also like Thomas, stop working – or at least leave official payrolls. Thirty-nine percent move up to better wages.
In Atlanta, working full time at minimum wage amounts to a third of the $32,000 a year it takes for a no-frills life, says the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Only six percent of Georgia residents hold low-wage jobs, while states like Montana, West Virginia, and Alabama have the highest rates, around 10 percent. Twenty-one states have set higher-than-national minimum wage rates.
One reason even some Republicans are mulling the wage hike is that the number of single mothers making minimum wage has nearly doubled in the last 10 years. Of Americans making less than $7.25 an hour, half are over 24 years old, and about half are primary household earners. Sixty-two percent are white, 16 percent are black, and 17 percent are Hispanic. Nearly twice as many are women than men.