Raising the US minimum wage to $15 an American dream

WASHINGTON - New York, Seattle, California: in the battle over the US minimum wage, cities and states are taking their own initiative, making regional advances toward the goal of a $15 (S$20) an hour floor.

Some cities have voted through spectacular increases, making the dream of better pay a reality for hundreds of thousands of employees in a country where the federal minimum wage level has remained unchanged at $7.25 an hour since 2009.

Opinions about the need for an increase are split along party lines.

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both support an increase, differing only on the scale and timing of such a move.

The former secretary of state calls for a smaller, slower raise while the Vermont senator wants the minimum doubled.

With rare exceptions such as Mitt Romney, the presidential nominee in 2012, Republicans have generally resisted calls for an increase, citing potential job losses.

Republican control of Congress over the past five years has ensured that the federal level remained unchanged.

It's now a third below the minimum wage in France, Belgium and other wealthy European countries, taking into account the relative purchasing power in those countries, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development says.

Like many other progressive causes in a country polarized between left and right, action is taking place at the state and municipal levels.

Minimum wages in 29 states and the capital Washington have surpassed the federal level. New York has instituted $9 an hour and California, $10. Major companies in Seattle have paid $13 an hour since January 1. In New York City, fast food employees earn at least $10.50.

A total of 18 states have voluntarily increased their minimum wages since 2013, some after holding referenda on the issue, according to the White House.

A new wave is expected in 2016.

The most significant change is brewing in California, the most populous US state, where local officials have recently agreed to progressively reach $15 an hour by 2023, a target large companies will hit even earlier.

More than a third of California's workforce would benefit from wage increases, according to a study from Berkeley University.

Clinton hailed the plan on Monday, tweeting a "big win for workers." Sanders parried, also on Twitter. "But here's the difference," he said. "I support a $15 federal minimum wage. @HillaryClinton does not." Her proposal calls for raising the federal level from $7.25 to $12.

A sudden minimum wage increase would be felt differently in various regions.

In the relatively poor South, the cost of living is far lower than on the country's wealthy coasts.

Doubling restaurant employees' salaries in Mississippi would have greater effect than in San Francisco, where salaries are already higher.

New York's high cost of living also makes raising the current minimum wage more urgent there.

"You're going to have higher legislated minimum wages in urban areas versus rural areas, Northeast and California versus the deep South," Jacob Kirkegaard of Washington's Peterson Institute said.

He believes those variations will only grow.

Unions and activists are pushing for a nationwide increase nevertheless.

In real value, the federal minimum wage has fallen to around a third of its peak level in 1968.

"The $7.25 minimum wage is only about $15,000 a year for a worker, and that's not enough to support a family anywhere in the country," said Laura Huizar of the National Employment Law Project.

The government sets the poverty line for a family of three at $20,160.

It's an issue that is almost never raised in the Republican primary campaign.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz has come out against any minimum wage increase.

Ohio Governor John Kasich flirted with a "reasonable" increase in September before changing tack during a debate earlier this month.

"Well, well, wait a minute, first of all, I didn't say I was for an increase in the federal minimum wage," he said in response to a question in apparent alarm.

"If states want to do it, they ought to sit down with businesspeople and the lawmakers and figure out what will work." Donald Trump said in November that wages were "too high," which was hurting American competitiveness.

That changed after Republicans began taking President Barack Obama to task over wage stagnation.

Trump corrected himself in December: "Wages in our country are too low."