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Minimum wage at $15 an hour: Would it help or hurt?

Minimum wage: Residents of SeaTac, Wash., will vote on hiking the minimum wage in November. At issue is whether a higher minimum wage would dim job prospects for young and unskilled workers.

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A Seattle police officer explains arrest procedure to a group protesting what they say are low wages and improper treatment for fast-food workers on Aug. 1. Washington already has the nation’s highest state minimum wage at $9.19 an hour. Now, there’s a push in one city to make it $15.

Elaine Thompson/AP/File

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Should the minimum wage go up to $15 an hour? That’s the question that’s suddenly in play in the Seattle area.

Residents of SeaTac, the city that's home to the Seattle-Tacoma airport, will have a ballot vote on that idea this November. And others in the region, from venture capitalist Nick Hanauer to Seattle politicians, are backing wider moves to boost bottom-rung pay.

If $15 sounds high, it's because it is more than double the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

States and cities are free to pass higher minimums, and Washington State already has the highest minimum wage in the US, a $9.19 hourly rate that rises with inflation each year.

The debate in Seattle is being waged against a backdrop of national anxiety about jobs and incomes. Earnings for middle-income families, adjusted for inflation, are about where they were in 1989, according to tracking by the Census Bureau.

And for low-wage households, those in the bottom 10 percent, real incomes today are below the low-wage levels in 1978.

President Obama and congressional Democrats are calling for a hike in the nationwide minimum wage, saying it will help keep the American dream of rising prosperity alive for working families.

What would a $15 minimum do?

If someone has a typical job, roughly 34 hours per week, that translates into annual income of $26,520, compared with about $16,250 for the Washington State minimum, or about $12,800 at the federal minimum.

The jump, supporters say, would mean that even low-wage jobs could be living-wage jobs.

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