Happy birthday to the minimum wage

The last time the national minimum wage was raised was in 2007, with the wage increase taking effect on July 24, 2009. A minimum wage is meant to ensure a minimum standard of living for each employee — particularly entry-level and low-wage workers. In 2020, more than one million workers nationally earned equal to or less than the minimum wage, and women — particularly Black and Hispanic or Latina women — were the most likely to earn at or below the minimum wage. A strong majority — 7 in 10 — of minimum wage workers are in the service industry. In honor of the 12th anniversary of the $7.25 minimum wage and the thousands of people who rely on it, we wanted to take a look at what life was like back in 2009 and all the ways our world has changed while the minimum wage has remained stagnant. In 2009:

Your middle schooler was born. 

A child born in 2009 would be turning 12 this year and entering the 6th or 7th grade, on the brink of becoming a fearsome teenager. 

The Great Recession was just ending. 

After years of economic crisis, the U.S. economy finally began to rebound — a process that would take more than half a decade. Our state budget, when adjusted for population growth and inflation, still hasn’t recovered. In October 2009, the unemployment rate was 10 percent. As of this June, unemployment is at 5.9 percent. An unfortunate side effect of this recovery was a shift in the labor market away from stable, middle-class employment towards low-paying, hourly jobs. These jobs are exactly the kinds of jobs that would benefit most from a minimum wage increase.

We were dealing with a pandemic — a different one. 

In 2009, the first case of the H1N1 swine flu was discovered in humans and made headlines worldwide. While not as deadly as COVID-19, H1N1 would make its mark by infecting more than 60 million people worldwide. Luckily, this event would wake up policymakers across the country and globe, leading us to develop pandemic preparedness measures that ensured the world would never be struck by a health crisis of that magnitude ever again. 

The Black Eyed Peas had a feeling, and Lady Gaga was showing us her Poker Face

Both of these songs topped Billboard’s Hot 100 songs for 2009. American Idol was the most popular show on TV, and TV was the most popular it has ever been. On the big screen, James Cameron’s Avatar broke the record for the highest grossing film (not adjusting for inflation).

Our grandparents hadn’t found Facebook yet.

Facebook turned five (and had only been available to non-students for three years). Twitter was only two years old. Instagram didn’t exist, and TikTok wouldn’t enter the scene for another seven years. By and large, the world had yet to enter the current golden age of cat photos and political polarization destined to ruin family get-togethers for years to come.

The iPhone 3GS was released. 

The new state-of-the-art iPhone model boasted a whopping 32gb of storage and could even, in a feat of technological genius, record videos. Other notable inventions in 2009 included the Smart Thermostat, the Levitating Mouse, and the Edible Race Car.

Stuff was cheaper. 

Between 2009 and 2021, inflation increased prices by nearly 25 percent. Some costs,  including many necessities, have risen even more steeply. When comparing the purchasing power of minimum wage earners from 2009 to now, today’s workers would be faced with growing costs in several key categories, including medical care (up 40%); housing (up 33%); and food (up 20%). It would be unconscionable to ask our neighbors to only take life-saving medications three days out of every five or to ask their family to forgo eating every fifth day. Yet by keeping the minimum wage stagnant for 12 years, this is essentially what we are doing. The simple truth is that the costs of survival have increased while the minimum wage has not. While a full-time minimum wage job in 2009 was enough to keep a family of two above the federal poverty line, it is currently only enough to keep one person above the poverty line. However, merely keeping people above the federal poverty line isn’t enough to ensure an adequate standard of living. The minimum wage set in 2009 is slightly more than half the current average living wage for a single adult with no children living in Oklahoma today. It is slightly less than a quarter of the living wage for a family of two adults with one child. 

Our world has advanced. So should our minimum wage.

The world in which the $7.25 minimum wage was enacted was very different from the world we find ourselves in now. Unlike the minimum wage, the cost of surviving has not remained stagnant. Today’s minimum wage has the same purchasing power of only $6 in 2009 dollars because the wage was not tied to inflation. Currently, 18,000 workers in Oklahoma are making at or below the minimum wage. Contrary to the popular notion that minimum wage jobs are commonly held by teenagers, only about one in five minimum or sub-minimum wage jobs nationally are held by workers aged 16-19. Many workers are trying to live and support family members on minimum-wage jobs, which is impossible anywhere in our state on a $7.25-an-hour salary. Additionally, about half of our low-paid workers were deemed essential during the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning they risked their health for the sake of everyone else in their community. Instead of ensuring that the workers we rely on are fairly compensated, Oklahoma’s Legislature has historically opted to move in the opposite direction — preventing cities and towns from exercising local control to set minimum wages that reflect costs of living within their communities. Oklahoma’s state motto – Labor omnia vincit, or “work conquers all” – suggests we place a premium on the value of work. Our state policies, including our minimum wage law, don’t support that claim. It’s long past time for Oklahoma lawmakers to increase the state’s minimum wage. Doing so would allow our friends and neighbors — many essential frontline workers — to go beyond just eking out survival and help them move towards a quality of life where they can thrive. 


About the Author

Josie Phillips published this blog post as a policy intern for OK Policy and transitioned into a Policy Fellowship with a focus on labor and the economy in August 2021. Read her full bio below.


Josie Phillips joined OK Policy in June 2020 as a policy intern and transitioned into a policy Fellowship with a focus on labor and the economy in August 2021. She served as a Policy Fellow until July 2022. She currently serves as State Priorities Partnership Fellow with the Maine Center on Economic Policy. Josie graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 2020 with a double major in Economics and International & Area Studies along with a minor in Spanish. While she has dabbled in working with various non profit organizations and a political campaign, her most treasured experience before entering the public policy field has been her time volunteering with the Women’s Resource Center, a rape crisis center and domestic violence shelter in Norman, Oklahoma.

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