And in recent weeks, with the endorsement of President Obama, raising the federal minimum wage is gaining steam as the next big political issue for Democrats.
Republicans, however, are still by and large opposed to the idea. But one wealthy conservative wants to change all that.
Enter Ron Unz, Silicon Valley millionaire, publisher of libertarian magazine The American Conservative, theoretical physicist by training, enemy of bilingual education and former Republican candidate for governor of California.
On Tuesday, Unz submitted paperwork in California to get a relatively aggressive minimum wage hike on the ballot that would raise the state's minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2016.
He reasons that there's at least one big conservative reason Republicans should back his proposal: It ends corporate welfare for large companies like Walmart and McDonalds by ending the low wages that force many of their employees onto the food stamp rolls.
ABC News spoke to Unz about his plans and why he believes conservatives would be smart to jump on his bandwagon. The interview has been edited for length and clarity:
ABC News: What are you trying to do here?
Ron Unz: The initiative is targeted for the November 2014 ballot. If it passed early in 2015, the minimum wage in California will go up to $10 an hour; early in 2016 it would be raised to $12 an hour. In other words, the initiative in a couple of stages would raise the minimum wage of all California workers to $12 an hour. (Editor's note: California legislators have already approved a minimum wage hike that would incrementally raise it to $10 an hour by 2016.)
Who did you vote for in the last election?
To be honest, I didn't like either candidate, Obama or Romney. I think I may have written in Ron Paul's name.
Do you consider yourself to be a conservative?
I generally consider myself more of a conservative. I come from a scientific background. So I try to sort of look at things on a case-by-case basis and take whatever position seems to make the most sense to me. Many times those positions are conservative, but sometimes they're not. If people want to call me a conservative that's fine, and if people claim I'm not a true conservative, that's also fine.
What's behind your advocacy on the minimum wage?
One aspect of the minimum wage rise, which I think is underappreciated, is [that] it would function as a massive stimulus package, a government stimulus package. If the minimum wage nationwide were raised to $12 an hour, probably between $150 billion and $175 billion a year would go into the pockets of the lower-wage families that spend every dollar they earn. It would cause a tremendous boost in economic demand.
Another important factor: One of the strange things in our society right now is that we have all these low-wage workers who are getting $7.50, $8 or $9 an hour, and because they earn such small wages, the government subsidizes them with billions or tens of billions of dollars of social welfare spending that comes from the taxpayer.
It's a classic example of businesses' privatizing the benefits of their workers while socializing the costs. Forcing the taxpayers to supplement the salary of their own employees.
Is there a political reason why Republicans should raise the minimum wage?
Absolutely. There's been a massive influx of impoverished immigrant workers, which depresses the wages of American workers. The best way of preventing that is a much higher minimum wage.
The reason that businesses hire them is that they're willing to work at such a cheap rate. They're willing to undercut American wages. If the minimum wage were much higher -- say, $12 an hour -- a lot of businesses would hire Americans.
But wouldn't companies still hire illegal immigrants and pay them under the table in order to pay them the lower wages they're willing to work for?
Obviously, some of that would happen. The vast majority of illegal immigrants right now earn above the minimum wage.
Do you plan to reach out to Walmart?
I'm certainly planning to.
Are you going to spend your own money to help get this on the ballot?
Certainly. But I certainly don't intend to fund the entire thing myself.
Liberals generally support a higher minimum wage, but some don't want the policy to be an excuse to undercut parts of the social safety net, like food stamps. How do you respond?
I'm not really a liberal, so I have no problem undercutting those programs.
Seems to me the average worker would prefer to have much higher wages so that they don't get food stamps.
And remember, many of them are actually Republican voters. They're the sort of conservative lower-middle-class base of the Republican Party.
Over 40 percent of all white Southerners would see a wage increase under a $12-an-hour minimum wage. And the average increase would be $4,500 a year. I think you'd see a lot of enthusiasm that would cross party and ideological lines.