Deon Osborne is a fall intern with the Oklahoma Policy Institute. He recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Strategic Media from the University of Oklahoma.

Workers shouldn’t have to struggle to survive on the minimum wage. Since the founding of Oklahoma, our state constitution has allowed for citizens to bring issues to a vote of the people through a signature-gathering process. The success of citizen petitions in recent years suggests that bringing a state minimum wage raise directly to the ballot has a better chance of passing in Oklahoma than through the state Legislature.

The minimum wage was established to give workers fair pay for their labor since 1938.  Yet, the value of the minimum wage hasn’t been able to keep up with the rising cost of living, placing working families in poverty. Today, 28,000 Oklahomans make the federal minimum wage of $15,080 per year or less. This $7.25 per hour minimum wage isn’t enough to live on, even in Oklahoma.  This low wage is especially detrimental to women. Working families are the backbone of our economy.  They shouldn’t have to choose between putting food on the table and paying rent.

While Oklahoma lawmakers have not raised the minimum wage — and even passed legislation preventing raises in local minimum wage laws — four other politically conservative states have passed minimum wage hikes through citizen petitions in recent years.  A citizen petition may be low-income workers’ best chance to establish a livable, minimum wage.

How does the citizen petition process work?

Initiative petitions allow citizens to create, change, or strike down state laws by gathering signatures to put a proposal to a statewide vote.  Oklahoma was the first state to include a process for initiative petitions in its original constitution.  Initiative petitions fall under three categories: statutory amendments that add to or alter state laws, constitutional amendments that add to or alter the state constitution, and veto referendums that repeal recently passed legislation.

The number of signatures required for a petition to qualify for the ballot varies based on the type of proposal and the number of votes in the last election for governor:

  • Constitutional amendments must receive signatures equal to 15 percent of voters in the last election for governor;
  • Statutory amendments require signatures of 8 percent;
  • Veto referendums require signatures of 5 percent.

Even though the state constitution has protected a citizens’ right to petition since 1907, Oklahoma has one of the most restrictive time frames to gather signatures out of the 26 states that allow for it: 90 days for statutory and veto referendums and only 60 days for constitutional amendments, a daunting task that some lawmakers have tried to make even more challenging.

Other states, including Alaska, Mississippi, and South Dakota allow one year to gather signatures.  Florida allows two years, and Utah has no time limit to gather signatures. 

Oklahomans have been filing fewer petitions in the last few decades, but the petitions that reached the ballot have had a better chance of passing.  From 1908 to 1978, citizen petitions that reached the ballot passed and became law at roughly 24 percent.  From 1979 to July 2018, nearly 50 percent of citizen initiatives have passed, including three of the four on the ballot in 2016 and 2018. 

States as conservative as Oklahoma have raised wages through citizen petitions

In 2014, the same year Oklahoma lawmakers banned any cities or counties from raising the minimum wage, four other Republican-controlled states succeeded in using citizen initiative petitions to raise their minimum wages above the federal level of $7.25 per hour.  Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota all voted to raise their wages to at least $8.50 per hour.

Both Nebraska and South Dakota had nearly the same share of registered Republican voters when these laws passed in 2014 as Oklahoma has today — roughly 5 in 10 — which indicates that interest in raising the minimum wage to a living wage reaches across party lines.

While Oklahoma Representatives  Jason Dunnington (D-OKC)George Young (D-OKC) and Scott Inman (D-Del City) have each introduced legislation to raise the minimum wage in recent years, the dismissal of their proposals indicates that a citizen petition may be the state’s best bet for enacting a fair and living wage.

Minimum wage workers can’t afford to wait on the state legislature for a raise

Oklahomans deserve to be paid adequately and fairly for the work they perform.  Since 2010, Oklahoma’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is a market value of all finished goods and services produced in one year, has continued to rise.  Oklahoma’s minimum wage, however, has remained the same as the federal. 

The period between 2007 and 2018 is the longest period without a minimum wage increase since the first federal minimum wage law was created eighty years ago.  In the meantime, the cost of consumer goods has also continued to rise. As a result, the minimum wage was worth more in 1968 than it is today, when adjusted for inflation.

With recent studies indicating a full-time minimum wage worker can’t even afford a two-bedroom apartment at the fair market rate anywhere in the U.S., the lack of action from Oklahoma legislators means citizens should consider raising the minimum wage on their own. 

Poverty wages hurt mothers and children most

Many people assume that the majority of minimum wage workers are teenagers and college students.  In fact, when Governor Fallin signed a bill in 2014 that banned cities and municipalities from raising their local wages, she claimed that most minimum wage earners are young, single people and that “many are high school and college students living with their parents in middle class families.” That’s not what the data shows. In reality, more than half of all minimum wage workers are between 25 and 54 years old. More than one in four have children, and fewer than one in ten are teenagers.

Nationally, nearly two in three minimum wage workers are women.  In Oklahoma the gender gap is even wider, as more than seven in ten are women, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Women in Oklahoma are struggling to support their families on an annual salary of $15,080 that doesn’t provide the bare essentials they need to survive and thrive.

Low wages have a negative effect on babies’ health, too. Poverty plays a major role in a number of birth complications, including low birth-weight leading to long-term health issues and a higher risk of death, according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health. Health and educational complications can follow a child their entire life and cost the state money.

Raising the minimum wage would give working mothers a growth in earnings that expands for several years, even if employers respond by cutting hours, according to a recent study from economists at the U.S. Census Bureau. Furthermore, research from past minimum wage hikes tell us that a raise creates a ripple effect that positively impacts workers making up to 150 percent of the minimum wage.  This means that even though minimum wage workers in Oklahoma represent only 3.1 percent of the state’s workforce, a minimum wage increase would benefit thousands more workers who make slightly more than minimum wage.  Oklahomans have a caring spirit for our neighbors when disasters strike. That generosity should extend to poor, working mothers who are raising the future of our state.

Raising the minimum wage should be a family value for Oklahomans

Oklahoma’s state motto declares “work conquers all things.” We should reward workers for their labor, not punish them with sub-standard wages that leave them locked in poverty or welfare. Low-income Oklahomans are producing more but getting paid less for their important contribution to our state’s economy.  Studies show raising the minimum wage would save billions of dollars on welfare costs nationally, making it a prime issue for conservative, moderate, and progressive Oklahomans to address.

Raising Oklahoma’s minimum wage should be a family value that extends economic opportunity to the most vulnerable in our society. Considering the recent successes of citizen petitions and the lack of action from state leaders, Oklahomans of all economic backgrounds should support a citizen petition to raise the minimum wage.