(WOMENSENEWS)—As the 2016 presidential campaign moves to states where the impact of free trade agreements on wages is a major issue, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is emphasizing how his proposal for a $15 minimum wage would benefit the 35 million low-wage Americans—the majority of them women—whose financial security has been decimated by the outsourcing of well-paying jobs to China, Mexico and other low-wage countries.

Sanders hopes that his unconditional opposition to the $7.25 federal minimum wage and his criticism of the North American Free Trade Act, or NAFTA, signed by former President Bill Clinton and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, negotiated by President Barack Obama will help him win the Democratic primaries in the five states that are holding primaries today: Florida, Illinois, Missouri, Ohio and North Carolina.

A total of 691 delegates are at stake.

Going into the contest, Sanders has 574 delegates compared to Hillary Clinton’s 1,244, nearly half the total she needs to win the nomination.

These tallies include unpledged or "superdelegates," a category that only exists in the Democratic Party and refers to party members who will cast their own votes as they see fit at the convention (rather than representing the will of the voters). While 449 are currently in Clinton’s tally and 25 are in Sanders’ tally, these people are free to change their vote at any time.

The 74-year-old Democratic Socialist’s attack on the "rigged economy" is resonating with voters in Ohio, notes Amy Hanauer, founding executive director of Policy Matters Ohio, a nonprofit policy research institute with offices in Cleveland and Columbus.

"The economy is the major issue in Ohio," she said. "Although the state added 80,500 jobs in 2015, Ohio is still reeling from the loss of jobs in the manufacturing sector that paid high wages, provided good benefits and offered opportunities to move up in the industry."

Ohio is not alone.

Thanks to NAFTA, the U.S. lost 700,000 jobs to Mexico and 3 million jobs to China following China’s entrance to the World Trade Organization, found a March report by the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive nonprofit organization in Washington that studies labor policies.

The organization’s 2013 report noted that on average, non-college-educated American workers, who make up 70 percent of the labor force, lose nearly $2,000 a year in wages, thanks to the growth of trade with low-wage countries that have benefited from free-trade agreements.

"The financial pressures on women have been tremendous," Hanauer said in a phone interview. "Married women find that their dual incomes are inadequate to support a family; single parents are falling into poverty because the cost of housing, food and other necessities far exceeds their meager paychecks."

Pressures on Low-Wage Women

Melissa Josephs, director of equal opportunity policy at Women Employed, a nonprofit organization based in Chicago that has fought for over 40 years to improve opportunities for women, is also concerned about the financial pressure on low-wage women.

Women Employed led the campaign to raise the minimum wage in Illinois in 2010 and has worked with national groups to win increases at the federal level.

"One of the myths perpetrated by opponents of the minimum wage is that the only people who work for these low wages are teenagers who need spending money or married women who want to fill their free time by working a few hours each week," Josephs said in a phone interview. "But unfortunately, older women who have lost better-paying jobs because of downsizing, women of color and waitresses who have to depend upon tips live a precarious existence because the minimum wage doesn’t cover basic necessities."

Forty-two percent of U.S. workers make less than $15 an hour, found a November 2015 report by the New York-based National Employment Law Project, or NELP, which works to create jobs and protect low-wage workers and the unemployed.

While making up less than half of the overall U.S. workforce, female workers account for 54.7 percent of those making less than $15 per hour. Ninety percent of home health and childcare aides are women.

"Six out of the 10 largest occupations with median wages that pay less than $15 an hour are those that are projected to add the most jobs in the U. S. in the coming years," Josephs said. "This means that unless the minimum wage is raised, these workers will be mired in poverty throughout their working lives."

This weekend, Sanders denounced the "rigged economy" at campaign stops in Illinois and Missouri and ran ads in Illinois and North Carolina stating that "unlike his opponent, Clinton, who has flip flopped on trade deals, he has fought them and stood with working people."

"You have no disposable income when you are making 10 to 12 bucks an hour," he said at a rally at Argo Community High School in Summit, Illinois, on Saturday. "People are working longer hours for lower pay and working two to three jobs to cobble enough money [together] to pay for health care. Although American workers are the most productive in the world, most of the money is going to the top 1 percent in the U.S. Enough is enough."

Unlike Sanders who has made decreasing inequality the hallmark of his campaign, Clinton has adopted more modest policies.

Clinton Proposes $12

While campaigning in Iowa in November, Clinton proposed that the federal minimum wage be raised to $12 to match in today’s dollars what the federal minimum wage was in 1968, the time when it had its highest buying power. She also said localities should be free to mandate a higher wage, such as $15 an hour.

Sanders has pointed out that states and cities often torpedo such proposals. Although Ohio is one of 29 states that have a higher minimum wage than the federal standard, recent proposals to provide modest raises have been vehemently opposed by Republican state legislators as well as Gov. John Kasich, who is making a last effort to win the Republican presidential nomination on Tuesday.

Proposals to provide small increases in the minimum wages of workers in Florida faltered in 2015, despite protests by restaurant workers, home health aides and other low-wage workers. The Missouri state legislature tried to prevent St. Louis and Kansas City from instituting higher wage minimums.

Resistance to increasing North Carolina’s minimum wage, which is set to the federal minimum by statute, was so great that the Durham Living Wage Project, a grassroots group, now offers incentives to businesses and nonprofits if they will pay their employees $12.32 an hour.

Clinton also has a mixed record on free trade agreements. She was an enthusiastic supporter of NAFTA, which was negotiated by former President George H. Walker Bush. As secretary of state, she urged other countries to support the TPP, but as a presidential candidate she has opposed it.

Ohio lost 112,500 jobs in 2015 alone because of the U.S. trade imbalance with Mexico, Canada, Japan and eight other countries that are part of the TPP, found a March 3 analysis by the Economic Policy Institute.

Sanders Hoping for Michigan Momentum

Sanders is hoping that his attacks on unfair trade deals will pay off in Tuesday’s primaries in the industrial states as it did in Michigan, where he beat Clinton 50 percent to 48 percent after polls showed her ahead by up to 20 points.

Sanders struggled to get above 15 percent of the African-American vote in the South, where the minimum wage and free trade were minor issues. But exit polls in Michigan found that he received 30 percent of the African-American vote there.

More than half of African-American women and close to 60 percent of Latino women make less than $15 an hour, the National Law Employment Project found.

These voters will be a key constituency in the general election for the Democratic nominee because all the Republican candidates –frontrunner Donald Trump, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz—support keeping the minimum wage at $7.25 an hour, the standard since July 2009.

Unlike his rivals who have adopted the standard pro-business approach to globalization, Trump has promised to shred America’s trade agreements and impose fines on imports from Mexico.

He has also been candid in debates that as a businessman he has taken advantage of lower wages overseas, but knows the situation wrongs U.S. workers.

The Donald J. Trump Collection, which includes shirts, eyeglasses, perfume and suits, are made in China, Bangladesh, Honduras and other low-wage countries, the Washington Post reported March 14. Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, also markets clothing made in China under her own line.

Julie Vogtman is director of income support policy and senior counsel for the economic security program at the Washington-based National Women’s Law Center, which has advocated for more than 40 years to protect equality and opportunities for women and families. The organization recently released a 48-page report "Set Up to Fail," which documents how low wages jeopardize parents and children’s success.

Vogtman predicts that supporting increases in the minimum wage will boost the chances of success for candidates in November.

"Parents’ low wages and working conditions, such as the lack of sick days, can undermine a child’s chances for success," Vogtman said in a phone interview. "A family struggling to subsist on a lower income will be unable to adequately feed and clothe children, take them to extracurricular activities or save for their education. These negative consequences on child outcomes will have a bad effect on the U.S. economy."

A national survey by Hart Research Associates conducted in a one-week period in January 2015, showed wide support for raising the minimum wage in stages to reach $12.50 in 2020. Ninety-two percent of Democrats, 73 percent of Independents and 53 percent of Republicans favored it.

Support among female voters was high. Eighty-five percent of women who earned less than $40,000 supported the measure, as did 73 percent of women who earned from $40,000 to $75,000 and 66 percent of women who earned over $75,000.