MERIDEN, Kan. — Celeste Henderson is a living, breathing mom who is in the news today, but only as a statistic. She’s one of the millions of American low-wage workers directly affected by Friday’s hike in the national minimum wage from $6.55 to $7.25 an hour.

The 26-year-old single parent works as a waitress while raising a 3-year-old in a crowded frame house here with her mother, father and two older brothers.

She says she cried a lot for more than a year after the baby was born, partly because the child’s father wouldn’t “even come around to see his son” and partly because “I have to spend so many of my days and even my nights at the restaurant.”

“But I’m done crying about all that now,” she told the World today, “and the extra money coming tomorrow is already putting a smile on my face.”

Henderson works at a downtown Topeka restaurant.

“I wait tables there, it’s not a big restaurant so there are no busboys and you have to do everything yourself,” she said. “The money isn’t really good except it’s a little better on weekend nights when there are specials like the all-you-can eat crab legs.”

Celeste explained that the owner is very careful to see to it that, with tips included, she goes home with $6.55 an hour, the guaranteed federal minimum wage up to midnight tonight.

She said she is “thrilled” about the increase “because I know that I can’t be coming home to my son with anything less than $7.25 for each hour that I spend away from him.”

Celeste said she is thankful for good neighbors in Meriden. “Randy’s gotten all of his clothes and almost all of his toys from people in town once their children have outgrown them or are finished with them.”

“This whole thing is swirling around inside my head. Seventy cents more an hour. Maybe now I can actually buy something. I’m so ashamed of not being able to buy even a simple little thing for my baby.

“He’s going to be ready for school in a few years. Maybe with this I can save a little for what he’ll need.

“I’d like to buy just one special toy for him, just one thing that’s not a hand-me-down. Can you imagine how happy he’ll be?”

Economists say the ability of millions of moms like Celeste to buy that one special toy will boost the economy.

Kai Filion, an economist at the labor-backed Economic Policy Institute, has called minimum wage hikes “an extremely effective and simple policy that achieves both the goal of helping struggling families and creating jobs.”

“By increasing families’ take-home pay, workers gain both financial security and an increased ability to purchase goods and services, thus creating jobs for other Americans,” says Filion.

The labor movement and progressive economists note, however, that, even with the bigger minimum wage, American workers are falling further and further behind.

“Even with 4.5 million of America’s lowest wage workers getting a pay increase to $7.25 an hour tomorrow,” said Heidi Shierholz, another EPI economist, the real value of the minimum wage is lower than it was 30 years ago.”

The problem of the declining real income of the working-class majority is not a problem shared by the wealthy, however.

“The top 1 percent has done very well,” according to an EPI report issued yesterday, “more than doubling their share of income from 1979 to 2006. The income of the top 1 percent grew to about 23 percent, or an average of $1.3 million per household.”

The AFL-CIO yesterday posted reports on its web site that showed CEOs received nearly $2.1 trillion of the $6.4 trillion in total U.S. pay in 2007, and those figures did “not include incentive stock options, unexercised stock options, unvested restricted stock units and other benefits.”

“America’s working class made it clear last November that they wanted change,” a federation statement said, “and reshaping the nation’s framework to strengthen the middle class and close the wage disparity between the very top and the rest of us, is fundamental to that change.”

Moves are under way in many states for further increases in the minimum wage. The Michigan Democratic Party, for example, said yesterday it is considering a ballot initiative asking voters to raise the state’s minimum wage from the current $7.40 an hour to $10 an hour.

jwojcik @