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PolitiFact: Democratic senator says minimum wage of the 1950s and 60s lifted people out of poverty

The statement

In the 1950s and 1960s, "the minimum wage was such that it would lift you out of poverty."

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., in a speech on the Senate floor

The ruling

For historical minimum wage data, we went to the U.S. Department of Labor. During the time period Reed was talking about, the minimum rose six times, starting at 40 cents per hour and eventually reaching $1.60.

How much did it take to lift someone out of poverty during that era? That's a much harder question to answer, and it depends on the size of the family, something Reed wasn't specific about.

The federal poverty level, the adequacy of which is still the subject of debate, wasn't developed until the early 1960s, so it wasn't even in existence during the start of the time period Reed was talking about.

The first "poverty threshold," in 1963, was about $3,100 for a family of four.

Someone earning the minimum wage that year would have earned $2,460, enough to keep a family of three out of poverty but not a family of four, according to the Social Security Administration's Office of Retirement and Disability Policy.

We used a cost-of-living calculator from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to get a rough idea of living costs for earlier years.

According to our calculations, throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the minimum wage would have been high enough to keep an individual above the poverty level.

The first time it was enough to push a two-person family above the poverty level was in 1956, when it jumped to $1 an hour.

But throughout the 1950s and 1960s, in most years, the minimum wage would not have lifted a family of three out of poverty and was never enough for a family of four.

When we shared our information with Reed's office, they provided information that confirmed our findings.

Reed spokesman Chip Unruh said the senator's statement about the minimum wage and poverty levels in the '50s and '60s is accurate.

"I think it is very clear that Reed is talking about his perception that hard work used to get you a livable wage," he said. "The federal poverty rate as measured today didn't always exist as a unit of measurement, but that doesn't mean poverty itself didn't exist. … Reed referenced families earlier in his speech, but he also was referencing individuals."

Reed, lobbying for an increase in the minimum wage, said that in the 1950s and 1960s, "the minimum wage was such that it would lift you out of poverty."

We found that during that period, the minimum wage always generated enough income to keep an individual out of poverty. But when it comes to making enough money to support a family, that wasn't always true during those two decades.

Based on federal data, the minimum wage didn't become high enough to support a two-person family until about 1956 and it wasn't consistently high enough to lift a family of three until 1967. It never covered a family of four.

One might assume that Reed was talking about families, but the statement we're checking isn't specific. Because that statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information, we rate it Mostly True.

C. Eugene Emery Jr., PolitiFact Rhode Island

Edited for print. Read the full version at PolitiFact.com.

PolitiFact: Democratic senator says minimum wage of the 1950s and 60s lifted people out of poverty 06/19/14 [Last modified: Friday, June 20, 2014 5:28pm]

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