The Import of Raising the Minimum Wage

The debate over whether or not to raise the minimum wage is an interesting one, but it shouldn't be. Anybody who has walked into a supermarket, sought to rent an apartment or make a few aoccasional co-pays at a doctor's office knows that it is not possible to live on $7.25 an hour, or $290 a week, and that the minimum wage should be raised. The evidence is not just based on a subjective perusal of the prices in a supermarket aisle or apartment shares on craigslist, but on data that shows that 17% of full time workers, and 7% of part time workers receive food stamps. Given this, it is clear that the current minimum wage is not sufficient for basic economic survival in 2014.

Opponents of raising the minimum wage claim that raising the minimum wage will depress job creation in an environment where unemployment and underemployment are already dire problems. There is some evidence that this is partially true, but there is also some debate on the question. There is, however, little debate around the understanding that raising the minimum wage would lift many workers out of poverty, especially if it is raised by a few dollars, thus directly effecting workers who are currently making minimum wage or slightly more.

The argument that raising the minimum wage will depress job growth may or may not be true, but it needs to closely examined. The problem with this argument is that even if it it is true it obscures other more important points. While joblessness is a difficult economic and psychological condition, the point of a job is for a person to earn enough money to survive in a decent manner. If that person has a family, then two jobs should be enough for that family to make ends meet in a similar way. Jobs that do not do that are probably better than nothing, but fall far short of meeting the needs of most people; and creating more of them does not solve address these underlying issues.

The problem is that corporate America, the finance sector, predatory lenders, anti-tax radicals and others have squeezed the American worker so badly in the last decade or two that the idea of a job has been defined down to mean in too many cases, something a worker does for 40 hours a week, while spending the remaining hours looking for other work, working a second job, seeking public assistance or otherwise struggling to make financial ends meet. A job should be a means to an ends. The ends should be economic survival. That relationship has been severed so that the idea of a job is not what it once was.

The second argument that is raised, although less frequently, against raising the minimum wage is that minimum wage is intended not for full time workers, but for teenagers, retirees and others looking for to work a few hours part-time to supplement their non-wage income. The primary fault with this argument is that it is fantasy, based in some hackneyed vision of what American supposedly once was. In today's economy many primary earners in family are working low or minimum wage jobs. Additionally, even for most teenagers and other part time workers, working for minimum wage is a pretty bad deal, particularly when the cost and time associated with commuting to a part-time job is considered.

Raising the minimum wage is something that is quite overdue, but it for it to be effective in changing the plight of large numbers of working poor Americans, this policy should be the beginning of a broader exploration of how workers are treated, and the assumptions made by employers, in today's economy. Too many businesses today recognize that they no longer need to pay their workers enough money to survive because the social welfare system, against which they so often rail, will pick up the slack so that these people can survive. This is essentially a grant from the government to the corporations that helps them pay the wages they would have to pay if the country had a decent living wage policy. This also redefines the nature of work and jobs for many Americans. For the the economy to be healthy again, this all has to change. Wages should be increased, but the social contract between corporations and the government upon which they depend so much needs to be restructured as well.

Arguing against raising the minimum wage because it might limit the creations of jobs that don't pay enough for people to survive it not only disingenuous, it is also cruel. That is, however, precisely what opponents of increasing the minimum wage are doing. It is a reminder that the fight to raise the minimum wage is concerned better pay for people, but also goes to the core to preserving, or perhaps rebuilding, rights, fairness and dignity for American workers.