Thursday, August 8, 2013

Raise the Minimum Wage?


The administration’s proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $9 has mixed reviews.  For many years the minimum wage was a starting point for low level, unskilled, entry level work, often part time, and applying often to teenagers and young adults just entering the workforce.  It was never intended to be a living wage for full time employment.  So why all this fuss about making it a living wage now?

Besides, as the common argument against it goes, any increase in the minimum wage will result in the loss of entry level, part time jobs for teens and young adults, as well as a drastic reduction in service industry jobs in restaurants and hotels.  Another common argument against it asserts that minimum wage jobs are an entry into something, that something being a predictable pathway to the middle class for anyone willing to work hard to earn higher wages from generous employers grateful for their hard work, increased skill, and greater productivity.  Raising the minimum will shut down that port of entry to a better life.

I imagine there is a point at which that could be true, but that point has never been reached in any previous increase in the minimum wage, nor in states where the minimum wage is already at or near $9.  Moreover, there are other forces at play that need to be examined.
  
It turns out that in the corporate world most employers are more interested in getting as much labor for the cheapest cost as possible, and resist anything that might take control of labor out of their hands.  In other words, it doesn’t have anything to do with shutting down job creation or ports of entry to a better life; it has everything to do with maintaining as much control as possible over the cost of doing business without interference from anyone else.  It is, they claim, the essence of a free enterprise system, ignoring the reality that it is not and never has been free, as in laissez faire.  It is a private enterprise system operating within the bounds set for it by public policy.  If you are senior management the rules work in reverse.  To get the best you have to pay the most, and when one of them doesn’t live up to their hype you pay them off with a couple of million dollars and utter a silent “oops” to shareholders.  Getting fired from the top is like winning the Lotto, but I digress.

Small business, mom and pop types, don’t play by those rules, but just the same they are not interested in paying anymore than they are forced to pay.

Which brings us to questioning the reality of these jobs as ports of entry to a predictable path to the middle class.  It appears that the majority of new jobs for seasoned adults supporting families are part time, low wage, minimal benefit, with little or no room for career development.  That’s the way it is, and it may be time to not simply raise the minimum wage, but index it to inflation so that we do what we can to head off the creation of generations of chronically impoverished persons who work hard and get nowhere.  If anyone needs an example of how that kind of system works out, just do a little reading on the economics and conditions of life in the South during the first sixty years of the 20th century.  When hard work for little pay gets entire generations nowhere, it will get them somewhere, and that somewhere is not good for society.

2 comments:

lester rouse said...

what about the ones whose work isnt quite worth the minimum wage whatever that is at the moment. most especaily those who are a notch up from those who can get into a protecded workhouse and the social services that go with that

Country Parson said...

Les,
What a great question. Wish I had an answer. There have been a number of ideas put forth. A sub-minimum training wage for one. The thing is, there will always be some, hopefully not that many, who can't or won't work at even a basic level. Quite a few of the street people I dealt with in NYC simply would not tolerate living by any rules, not even their own. Here in Walla Walla we had an old time hobo who settled in with us doing simple work around the church. He could barely write his own name, and had self destructive personal habits honed over a life time. Eventually we got him on the lowest level of Social Security, but he died shortly after and is inurned in our columbarium. Could he have lived a different life? Who knows? He didn't, and there are others like him.