By Sophia Kirschenman

A majority of the U.S. Senate voted last Thursday, Feb. 1, to increase the federal minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 an hour.

The move represents bipartisan efforts in the new Democratic Congress and the first national wage-hike in over a decade. If President Bush signs the legislation into law, workers will see the increase gradually over the next two years. The bill also includes tax cuts for small businesses and tax increases for many executives—provisions latched on by Senate Republicans.

But despite the apparent compromises in Congress, minimum wage remains a highly debated topic.	While some say minimum wage regulation is beneficial for members of the lower class, others argue the problem is not that people are underpaid, but that they lack the necessary skills to qualify for higher-income jobs.

Samuel DeCanio, a politics lecturer at UC Santa Cruz, believes that while minimum wage increases are intended to help the impoverished, they in fact have devastating effects.

“In general, minimum wage hikes are among the most counterproductive policies that are used to try to combat poverty,” DeCanio said. “Considerable research has documented that minimum wage regulations actually increase levels of unemployment.”

DeCanio also highlighted that unemployment among African-Americans and other minorities tends to increase as minimum wage rates are boosted.

“No one likes to hear this argument,” DeCanio said. “It makes counterintuitive claims that suggest well-intentioned people can actually wind up hurting the individuals that they are trying to help. But just because a theory is counterintuitive doesn’t mean it isn’t correct.”

While DeCanio believes that minimum wage boosts are unnecessary and detrimental, others, like Ryan Coonerty, legal studies lecturer at UCSC, believe that minimum wage increases are a vital to working-class Americans.

“A minimum wage is important,” Coonerty said. “If people are working 40 hours a week, they deserve to be able to feed their families and have a roof over their heads—an increase in the minimum wage doesn’t guarantee that will happen, but it helps.”

Coonerty, whose family owns Bookshop Santa Cruz on Pacific Avenue, added that their business strives to provide a living wage for its employees.

“We have always paid higher than the minimum wage and will continue to do so,” Coonerty said.

The parallel minimum wage bill that went before the House of Representatives on Jan. 10 did not include the extensive tax agenda added in the Senate. But once the bill was sent across the Capitol—where the Democrats hold the majority position by a much smaller margin—compromise was necessary in order to create bi-partisan legislation.

Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) seemed to believe that it is mostly Republicans who do not support the increase.

“It’s always baffling to me what Republicans have against hard-working Americans,” he said in a speech last week.

Senators had difficulty coming to an agreement, and their debate lasted nine days while a total of 111 amendments were made to the bill. Members of both parties of Congress must reconcile their differences if they hope to pass legislation increasing national minimum wage. If passed, this will be among the first victories for the Democrats since they took control of Congress.

Ron Matuszak, a fourth-year student majoring in health science at UCSC who works at the Student Union on campus, believes that in states where the cost of living is higher, the national minimum wage does not provide an adequate living wage for those workers.

“In California, it would be hard to live off [$5.15 an hour],” Matuszak said. “It wouldn’t be very comfortable, but I don’t think I’d be dying on the street. If you wanted to go out to a steak dinner three nights a week it probably wouldn’t happen.”

However, he said, he does see both sides of the issue.

“I don’t agree with giving people really crummy wages, but I don’t think we should make [employers] pay more.”

Regardless of national law or public opinion, 29 states, including California, will raise their minimum wages to $8.00 per hour by next January.