THE KANSAS CITY STAR It's Time to Raise Minimum WageBy Jack ReedBefore adjourning for a lengthy summer break, the Republican leadership concocted a cynical plan to tie a much-needed boost in the minimum wage to a massive tax cut for the heirs of the wealthiest Americans. Senate Democrats, and a few Republicans who knew their leaders overreached, defeated that effort.Putting a minimum wage hike that is so necessary for working families trying to make ends meet together with an estate tax giveaway that benefits a few wealthy heirs reveals a warped set of priorities.This is just the latest example of how this Republican-controlled Congress caters to the needs of the wealthy and leaves working and middle-class families to fend for themselves.Our government should not just focus on economic policies that benefit Wall Street, we need to take care of people who live on Main Street as well.A minimum wage hike is sorely needed and long overdue. The federal minimum wage, which stands at $5.15 per hour, hasn't increased since 1997. Since then, inflation has not only wiped out that pay increase but reduced the real value of the minimum wage to its lowest level in half a century.Meanwhile, Congress members have awarded themselves $31,600 in pay raises over the last nine years. That's why legislation linking congressional pay raises to increases in the federal minimum wage is gaining support. If the minimum wage had increased at the same rate as congressional salary increases since 1997, the wage floor would now be nearly $6.50 per hour.Democrats have supported an increase in the minimum wage for years. The Senate leadership has refused to have an up or down vote on the minimum wage because they know very few senators would dare vote against it based on the merits.The Economic Policy Institute estimates that 6.6 million workers would benefit directly from an increase from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour and the average benefit would be $1,200 per year. An additional 8.3 million workers earning somewhat more than $7.25 per hour could gain indirectly from ''spillover benefits'' of the minimum wage increase.Raising the minimum wage is vital because too many people have been left out of the recent economic growth. Strong productivity has translated into higher profits for companies, not more take-home pay for employees. The stagnation of earnings in the face of soaring prices for gasoline, home heating and health care is squeezing the middle class.No one who works full time should have to live in destitution, but the current minimum wage isn't enough to bring a single parent with one child over the poverty line even if the parent works 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year. Five million more Americans have fallen into poverty since President Bush took office 37 million Americans now live in poverty, including 13 million children.The minimum wage is an important policy tool that lets low-income families lift themselves out of financial hardship. Eighty percent of those who would benefit from a minimum-wage increase are adult workers, and more than a third of these adults are sole breadwinners for their families. This is not pocket change for teenagers, as opponents of the wage floor have argued. It is an increase that can change lives.A minimum-wage pay hike will contribute to the economic well-being of millions of middle- and lower-income families. Moreover, raising the minimum wage will increase the likelihood that these workers will pay taxes and draw on fewer social services.Every day the minimum wage is not increased it continues to lose value, and workers fall farther and farther behind. Congress should raise the minimum wage when it returns in September. It's simple, it's fair, and it's time.Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., is the ranking member of the Joint Economic Committee of the Congress.