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$15 minimum wage not enough to keep Arizonans out of poverty, experts say

National legislators are debating increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 over the next five years. Proponents say it should really be between $18 and $21.

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Editor's note: The above video aired during a previous broadcast.

National legislators on both sides of the aisle are debating whether to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour over the course of the next five years.

The recent minimum wage increases made in Flagstaff not only answer many of the questions lawmakers are asking, but also provides a new question: Will $15 an hour in 2026 even be enough to decrease the national poverty rate?

Residents of Flagstaff approved Proposition 414 in 2016 to raise the city's minimum wage from $10 an hour in 2017 to $15.50 an hour in 2022. The city is currently at $15 an hour as of January.

Lawmakers in D.C. have said such an increase could create massive job loss and negatively impact the nation's economy. The argument is that any increase to the minimum wage would put a strain on both large and small businesses to the point where they would have to layoff or fire many of their employees.

However, the opposite can be seen from what happened in Flagstaff and other cities across the nation.

Data from Flagstaff and the U.S. Census Bureau showed that passing Prop. 414 had no major effect on the city's unemployment rate in the three years since and positively impacted both the city's poverty rate and tax revenue.

Flagstaff is not the only city where unemployment did not increase after the minimum wage rose. A study looking at employment rates in Chicago, the District of Columbia, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose, and Seattle after wage increases saw no evidence of job loss due to the increase. In fact, multiple studies have shown that some employment rates actually rose after a wage increase.

The original founders of the proposition are happy with the progress that Flagstaff has made with the minimum wage. But, they said $15 an hour nationally over the course of the next five years is not enough to help people stay out of poverty.

"Fifteen dollars should not be the number [national legislators] are aiming for," Financial Advisor Eric Souders said. "That number has been locked in the consciousness of people going on 10 years now. It should at least be somewhere between $18 and $21, and that's just barely getting people to a livable wage."

Even with the increase, $15 an hour is still not a livable wage in Flagstaff today. The average resident of Flagstaff would currently have to make $26.63 per hour just for base living expenses, assuming the federal requirement of at least 30 hours of service per week is met.

Souders first presented Prop. 414 to Flagstaff's Sustainability Commission back in 2016. He said he became impassioned to raise the city's minimum wage as he witnessed more and more of his clients not being able to financially survive.

"They were watching their salaries stay flat while their living expenses just kept climbing," Souders said. "These are my clients. These are the people I was trying to help save money, and there was no way for them to do that."

Wondering what the livable wage is in your area? Use the Economic Policy Institute's budget calculator here.

EPI's Family Budget Calculator measures the income a family needs in order to attain a modest yet adequate standard of living. The budgets estimate community-specific costs for 10 family types (one or two adults with zero to four children) in all counties and metro areas in the United States.

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