Clinton's drive to increase minimum wage will have to go on back burner

September 03, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Lifting working families out of grinding poverty has been a central objective of President Clinton's domestic agenda since last year's campaign, yet the White House appears to be finding it increasingly difficult to live up to that pledge.

In an effort to win conservative support for his anti-poverty agenda, Mr. Clinton has focused on Americans who work full-time, but make so little they still fall below the federal government's poverty level.

Mr. Clinton's first budget, which won narrow passage in Congress last month, contains expanded tax breaks that will boost the incomes of low-wage workers with families. But the administration appears to have placed an equally important element of Mr. Clinton's anti-poverty plan -- a proposed increase in the minimum wage -- on the back burner.

And Congress scaled back by nearly two-thirds the president's proposal to significantly expand the food stamp program, a third component of his program to aid the working poor.

While it has not abandoned the fight, the administration concedes that without the minimum wage increase, its objective of guaranteeing all working families that they will stay above the poverty level cannot be achieved.

Administration sources said yesterday that Mr. Clinton is not likely to push for an increase in the minimum wage until next year at the earliest.

The White House is already overloaded with new policy initiatives that it must sell to Congress this fall, most notably health care reform, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and Vice President Al Gore's campaign to "re-invent government,"called the National Performance Review.

With so much on its plate, administration and congressional officials, along with industry lobbyists, said they think it is very unlikely that the White House will be able to push for a higher minimum wage before the end of 1993.

Attempting to raise the minimum wage during debate over the administration's new mandates on employers to finance health reform would also be politically dangerous, administration officials acknowledged.

"You could think of health care reform as a sizable increase in the minimum wage for people who don't have it now," said a White House official. That would give businesses even more reason to fight the White House health care plan, which clearly has a higher priority with the president. Still, Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich, a leading voice on economic policy in the administration, is fully behind the plan to raise the minimum wage.

In a July 22 memo to the White House that was leaked to the media, Mr. Reich suggested that he would support an increase in the minimum wage from $4.25 to $4.50, and that he believed that it should be indexed so that it would always rise with $H inflation.

"To achieve the goal of making work pay, the minimum wage should be raised and then indexed," Reich wrote.

His memo added that he would make a formal proposal by October that could be reviewed by the administration's National Economic Council. Yet that proposal would have to be approved by the White House, and would almost certainly come too late for any action this year.

Then, too, a proposal to index the wage level would be controversial, and face a tough battle in Congress.

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