This month marks the 50th anniversary of the first cell phone call.
On April 3, 1973, co-inventor Martin Cooper left his Motorola office and headed to midtown Manhattan to use the first cell phone to call his competitor and counterpart at Bell Labs/AT&T to brag. The pioneering, two-pound block of a cell phone would be unrecognizable next to today’s sleek, lightweight models, the latter with capabilities no one could have imagined 50 years ago. At 94 years old, Martin Cooper has lived to see the whole progression.
Cell phone prices have dropped significantly since their public release. The first cell phone—the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X—retailed for 12,000 of today’s dollars at the time of its release, costing 1,193 minimum wage hours at the time. Today, you can buy an unused older model iPhone for less than $100 or 14 of today’s minimum wage hours.
The world has rapidly changed in the half-century since that call. While the cost of producing electronics like TVs, computers, and cellphones has dropped significantly in recent decades, the cost of many basics has climbed sharply. Housing and child care prices have jumped, grabbing a larger share of a family’s budget. Medical care and college tuition prices have skyrocketed, leading to debt crises all but unheard of in other industrialized nations. And more recent upticks in the price of food, new cars, gasoline, and utilities have caused these basics to consume increasingly more of a household’s income, leaving many struggling to make ends meet. Wage increases for most workers haven’t kept pace with the cost of necessities, and the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact workers’ lives in ways no one was—or could reasonably be—prepared for. While most workers’ wages haven’t kept pace with worker productivity or inflation, the minimum wage has become especially disconnected from its original goal—to offer a decent living.
In 1968, five years before that historic phone call in New York City, one person working full time at the federal minimum wage was enough to keep a family of three above the poverty line. This was the peak value of the US minimum wage. At today’s Pennsylvania/federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, that same full-time, year-round worker earns only $500 over the amount needed pull one person above the poverty line. And that worker would need to work 10-hour days every single day of the year to lift that same family of three’s income just above the poverty line.
This difference in what the minimum wage can do—what people paid the minimum wage can afford and who it can support—isn’t because our poverty lines have changed. There is less than a $900 difference between the 1968 and 2023 poverty threshold for a family of three once you adjust for inflation. The difference between what the 1968 minimum wage could do and what the current minimum wage can do is representative of a failure to answer repeated calls to raise it. Somewhere along the way, we’ve lost sight of what the minimum wage must do.
At its creation, the minimum wage aimed to stabilize the post-Depression economy while protecting workers who had little bargaining power. It was set to create a minimum standard of living for the lowest-paid workers, aiming to protect their health and well-being. In a statement after the initial attempt to establish the first US minimum wage, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said:
It seems to me to be equally plain that no business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country. By ‘business’ I mean the whole of commerce as well as the whole of industry; by workers I mean all workers, the white collar class as well as the men in overalls; and by living wages I mean more than a bare subsistence level—I mean the wages of decent living.
Although arguably not considered a “decent living” to many, researchers at MIT have marked $16.41—an hourly wage more than 2.25x our current minimum wage—as Pennsylvania’s average living hourly wage, a wage high enough to keep a single worker afloat without anti-poverty program support, but not high enough to allow that worker to purchase any prepared foods, eat outside the home, or have a single dollar for entertainment or savings.
On March 7, 2023, our newest governor delivered his inaugural budget address. The budget includes a proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2024, with Governor Shapiro stating: “Let’s treat workers with the respect they deserve and finally raise the minimum wage.” Some Pennsylvania legislators have announced plans to introduce bills for a $15 minimum wage, and even a bill calling for an $18 minimum wage.
The Pennsylvania minimum wage has been on hold at $7.25 since 2009, with repeated calls to raise it going unanswered. This year’s high school graduating class was in preschool the last time the minimum wage was raised. A $15 minimum wage is not excessive, nor implausible, nor should it be intolerable. What has been, and continues to be, intolerable is the inaction on this policy issue. A $15 minimum wage is still below the living wage for the average Pennsylvania worker, and efforts to dial it back are misguided.
Notably, Pennsylvania is not a trailblazer in this policy space—our regional neighbors have been among those leading the way on minimum wage increases, with several already at, or scheduled to be at, $15 per hour within a year. Our years-long, low minimum wage floor has suppressed the wages of over a million hardworking Pennsylvanians who deserve and are calling for more from a commonwealth that touts “Virtue, Liberty, and Independence” as a motto.
Will this be the year that the call is answered?
 Authors calculations, additionally supported by https://www.epi.org/publication/minimum-wage-workers-poverty-anymore-raising/.
 The 1968 family of three poverty threshold was $2,774, source: https://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/statcomps/supplement/2022/3e.html. CPI inflation adjusted from August 1968 to March 2023; this amounts to $23,923. 2023 Poverty Guidelines show a $24,860 threshold for a family of three, https://aspe.hhs.gov/topics/poverty-economic-mobility/poverty-guidelines.
 Cornell Law, overview on the minimum wage: https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/minimum_wage.