NEW YORK — Rafael Turan learned a hard economic lesson when he came to New York City from Mexico five years ago: Employers were happy to give him work as a dishwasher, but at an hourly rate of pay so low he could not possibly support his family.
And that was even if his bosses were willing to pay the $5.15 hourly minimum wage required by law. If he worked full time at that rate, he would earn $206 a week.
"How can you pay rent here when wages are so small?" he asked after speaking at a rally earlier this month to urge support for an increase in New York's minimum wage to $7.10 an hour. "People raise rents and they raise subway fares. When do they raise wages?"
At a time when New York is suffering an economic downturn -- with rising unemployment, factories closing upstate and thousands of young people leaving the region for better jobs elsewhere -- a battle to raise the state's minimum wage has been gathering strength among labor leaders, activists, politicians and clergy members.
Many think that it is unconscionable that an affluent state like New York offers residents the same minimum salary as Arkansas, West Virginia and other poorer states.
People working full time at the minimum wage gross $10,712 annually. And many of these employees -- like clerks, gas station attendants, security guards and dishwashers -- live below the poverty line, according to federal statistics. An estimated 10 million to 12 million people nationwide earn this wage.
"We believe poverty destroys more lives than war," said James Forbes, senior pastor at Riverside Church in Manhattan, which hosted this month's rally. "So this question of the minimum wage is as much a moral issue as an economic one."
Efforts to raise basic pay in the Empire State have failed for five straight years, but some proponents think that the pressures of an election year and anxiety over the economy have increased the potency of such "safety net" issues.
On March 1, the Democrat-controlled state Assembly passed a bill to increase the wage to $7.10 an hour by 2006.
Attention now is focused on the Republican-run state Senate, where there appears to be enough support for passage. Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno has previously blocked the measure from coming to a full vote, and it was not clear whether he would do so this year. If he does permit action, it will probably not be until June, when New York approves its budget.
The proposed increase would apply to nearly 700,000 New Yorkers who earn less than $7 an hour, according to an economic study of the minimum wage issue by the Fiscal Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank based in Albany and New York City.
Of those New York workers affected, more than 70% are adults, including a large number of immigrants and single working parents, the study found. Many now earn salaries below the federal poverty level, which is $18,400 for a family of four.
"I don't know how she keeps things together," said Erica Betit, referring to her sister, Rachel, who works 10 to 12 hours a day as a clerk for $6.82 an hour at a chain store in Troy, near Albany. "I help her with child care, but she still needs food stamps for her family. She's trying to raise three young children."
States are free to set minimum wages higher than the federal government's $5.15 rate, which has not been raised since 1997. Twelve states and the District of Columbia have done so, including California ($6.75) and several states bordering New York, like Connecticut ($7.10), Massachusetts ($6.75) and Vermont ($6.75).
"Sometimes an issue comes to a head and people finally decide to do something about it," said Mario Cilento, spokesman for the New York AFL-CIO, the nation's largest state labor federation, which is lobbying for the increase. "The outcome is still not clear, but this year there is a sense of movement."
A key change, Cilento noted, is that more Republicans are speaking up in favor of a wage increase.
Critics of an increase argue that it will hurt the people it is designed to help. They think that employers who are forced to pay higher wages would simply lay off more workers. Moreover, critics say, many low-income workers get other public benefits -- ranging from tax credits to food stamps -- that put additional money in their pockets.
"The fact is that when the minimum wage goes up, jobs disappear," the New York Post said in an editorial this month. "Harsh, yes. So's life."
As the debate grows in Albany, some advocates think that it may become a potent issue for members in each party, not only in New York but also in other states.
In Wisconsin, legislators are debating a minimum wage hike to $6.50 an hour.
"This is an issue Republicans can embrace," said Dan Cantor, executive director of New York's Working Families Party, which is spearheading the fight in New York for a higher minimum wage. "We're not raising taxes. This is all about wages, not public benefits."