Watch Rick Santorum argue for a higher minimum wage in the first-round Republican debate.

Watch GOP Hard-Liner Rick Santorum Argue for a Higher Minimum Wage

Watch GOP Hard-Liner Rick Santorum Argue for a Higher Minimum Wage

A blog about business and economics.
Sept. 16 2015 8:24 PM

Watch GOP Hard-Liner Rick Santorum Argue for a Higher Minimum Wage

Champion of hard-working Americans, Rick Santorum.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

An earnest defense of raising the minimum wage isn’t something you typically expect to hear in a Republican debate, but it’s what Rick Santorum served up in the undercard round on Wednesday night. Santorum made his case in response to Lindsey Graham’s insistence that he would not raise the minimum wage because doing so would make it tough to hire more workers. “If you’re a waitress out there wanting more money, I’m not going to increase the minimum wage, I’m going to try to create an environment to hire you at a higher rate or they’ll have to pay more to keep you,” Graham said.

Santorum wasn’t having it. “If you’re not for increasing it,” the former senator fired back, “the answer is the Republicans don't believe in a floor wage in America.”* Santorum’s proposal is to increase the minimum wage by $0.50 an hour each year over the next three years, eventually bringing the federal floor to $8.75. It’s a case that Santorum has made before, arguing that the minimum wage should cover about 7 percent of the American workforce, in line with historical trends. In 2014, about 3 million people or 3.9 percent of all hourly workers were paid at or below the federal minimum, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The increase Santorum is proposing isn’t nearly as dramatic as the $15-an-hour figure that’s gained support from the likes of Andrew Cuomo and Hillary Clinton, but it’s nonetheless a departure from the prevailing sentiment among GOP contenders. That made Santorum’s case for a higher minimum wage all the more stirring. Here’s his whole defense:

Ninety percent of the American workers don’t own a bar. They don’t own a business. They work for a living. Most of them are wage earners. And Republicans are losing elections because we’re not talking about them. All we want to talk about is what happened to our business. There are people who work in that business. I was at the convention four years ago and on the signs of all of the seats the night I spoke was a sign that said, we built that because Barack Obama had talked about how businesses didn’t build their own businesses. Then we trotted out one small business person after another for almost an hour that night talking about how they built their businesses and that’s wonderful. But you know what we didn’t do? We didn’t bring one worker on that stage. How are you going to win, ladies and gentlemen? How are we going to win if 90 percent of Americans don't think we care at all about them?

*Correction, Sept. 17, 2015: This post originally misstated that Rick Santorum is a current senator. He was formerly the U.S. senator representing Pennsylvania.

Alison Griswold is a Slate staff writer covering business and economics.