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America, America Burning Bright

The Absolute Minimum

Highlights from a reading of 200-plus letters to the editor, from newspapers in all 50 states, to determine what Crazy America thinks about raising—or lowering—the minimum wage.

Tony Tasset, Coke Can Cross, 2009. Courtesy the artist and Kavi Gupta, Chicago/Berlin.

The last time I can remember earning the minimum wage, it was 2000 and I was home for the summer, working at a convenience store to save up for my junior year of college. Now I’m married, have a doctorate and no children, and I’d be all gurgle and no guts if I said I knew what it was like to work full-time and not clear the poverty line.

According to a recent Reason-Rupe poll, a majority of Americans supports raising the minimum wage, and yet that same poll shows most oppose higher pay if it leads to higher unemployment.

However, a reading of 200-plus letters to the editor from newspapers in all 50 states suggests a slightly more nuanced position.

The phrase “minimum wage” gets its name, as Joanne from Indiana explains in the Indy Star, because it is “designed for minimum demands.” It’s only paid to people who need to learn “valuable lessons about showing up on time, prepared to work,” writes Joseph in South Carolina’s Greenville News. It’s also said to be a stepping stone, and, as Michael in the Arkansas Times Record explains, “You’re supposed to move out of that job to a better [one].”

That’s great advice for the 3.3 million Americans who currently earn the minimum wage, people whom the US Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us are mostly under the age of 25 and more likely to be women. But who are these people, really?

For starters, they’re “inexperienced, unskilled teenagers” who have “minimum value,” writes Tom in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Dan in Alabama’s Dothan Eagle clarifies: They’re people whose economic hardship is a result of their “inequality of effort… honesty, integrity, and good old-fashioned work ethic.” Which means they have nothing in common with people who represent us in Congress, because they’re “Joe Sixpack,” writes Patrick, the managing editor of Oklahoma’s Miami News Record; and since they have neither skills nor education, they’re being paid “just for their warm body.”

For that, they should be happy, like Angie. She wrote in Idaho’s Power County Press that she made the minimum wage when she was “a year out of college with a bachelor’s degree,” and “with a minimum amount of work experience, [she] was pleased.”

They’re also people who should really stop having children. As Brett in California’s Contra Costa Times complains, “It’s not right to expect the rest of society to subsidize the bad decisions that some people have obviously made if they find themselves in the position of having to support a family on a minimum-wage job.”

To recap thus far: Minimum wage workers are warm-bodied, “Joe Sixpack” teenagers, with no skills and no education, except when they’re adults, college graduates, and/or they’re raising children. It’s just so hard to arrive at a neat generalization that sums up the worthlessness of three million people.

“Make education affordable. Raise the minimum wage. Drop the world into our hands, and we will catch it.”

Then again, I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to jauntily denigrate 27.8 million—that’s the number of American workers who make less than $10.10 an hour. According to the Economic Policy Institute, more than a third of them are older than 40. You won’t hear much about them from the politicians and letter writers railing against higher wages; their plight doesn’t provide as many snappy sound bites.

Thankfully, not everyone is so quick to judge. Steve in the Tennessean believes that minimum-wage workers are people who have been exploited, who work jobs where “they have no expectation of a raise… benefits are almost nonexistent and [their] hours are at the whim of the manager.” And while Sen. Paul Ryan might point to the fact that he began his working career at a McDonald’s—and look where he is now!—he’s the exception, not the rule. Take Aisha, a divorced mother of three, who wrote in the Detroit Free Press: “I have worked as a tipped server for 15 years and, not counting tips, I still make only $2.65 an hour.” For Aisha, raising the minimum wage, for all workers, would be a “game changer,” because she could “start to save up for [her] teenage daughter’s college fund and maybe even think about taking some online courses.”

But like the statistics tell us, minimum-wage workers are also teenagers. Some live in the suburbs with their wealthy parents, some don’t. Some have college funds, some don’t. In so many ways, teenagers are stuck in a conundrum: To get a job, frequently you need to have had a job before, and with the teenage unemployment rate hovering around 24 percent, that’s not an easy pre-req to fulfill.

Many of the letters to the editor I read were written by people who felt lucky to have made less than $2 an hour as teens—working their first jobs back in the ’60s—because in hindsight they were grateful to learn new skills, to learn how to adapt to the expectations of their employers. Of course, they grew up in a different economy and the not-yet-broken promise of a Great Society.

In 2014, our teenagers know too well what lays ahead: staggering school loans and a job market that holds anything but promise. Nora, a high school student who wrote to the Dallas Morning News, shared her concerns: “There are thousands of young minds out there, fried from financial stress and doomed to work at dead-end jobs until they can afford to go college or retire.” Her letter ended with a plea that revealed a hope buried deep beneath her pragmatism: “Make education affordable. Raise the minimum wage. Drop the world into our hands, and we will catch it.”

Stan, in Colorado’s Post Independent, probably would remind Nora that she shouldn’t confuse her “human value” with her “economic value;” and if she doesn’t understand that, she should just consider, as Stan writes: “why NFL quarterbacks make the really big bucks and linemen don’t.”

It would be interesting to hear Stan—who also lamented, “Everybody thinks they’re worth more than they’re being paid”—apply his theory to the wages earned by our women and men in the military. What’s one Tom Brady worth in the Army Rangers? How many Marines would satisfy the economic equivalent of a lineman? Let’s just ignore, for the moment, the fact that over 900,000 veterans received SNAP—food-stamp—benefits each month in 2011. Instead, let’s move to Maryland, where Ric wrote in the Capital Gazette: “My concern is that no one is talking about a minimum wage for our military, where many of our enlisted men and women earn significantly less than… $10.10/hour.”

And he’s right. Sure, our military men and women get benefits, like the GI Bill. That’s part of the contract they signed and what we’re legally obligated to provide them. There’s also the bravery, you might to go war, thank you for your service, and the freedom whatnot that might not be reflected in the beginning salary for an E-1 Airman Basic in the United States Air Force, which is $17, 892.

To put that in context, though: In 2010, the average Walmart employee earned $20,744 per year.

 

On June 2nd, the Seattle City Council unanimously approved raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Important to note: Nobody’s making that until 2017. Let’s say, hypothetically, the federal government raised the minimum wage even more gradually than the Emerald City, a bit like how 13 states did as of Jan. 1, 2014. Or how recently passed legislation in Maryland, Delaware, Minnesota, Connecticut, West Virginia, and Hawaii will do later this year. What will happen?

“The result [will be] less employment for the young, the uneducated, and the unskilled, thus taking away their ability to improve themselves and become worth more, “ writes Anthony in Virginia’s Daily Progress.

While the Congressional Budget Office doesn’t have statistics on people’s “worth,” perhaps Anthony’s worries were exacerbated by numbers from its oft-cited report, which hypothesized that as many as one million jobs could be lost as a result of raising the minimum wage to $10.10.

Except if you read the report a little more closely, the CBO’s projected job losses range from a “very slight decrease” to those more frightening numbers. Basically, the CBO has no idea what will happen. Other than the fact that they confidently predict that 16.5 million workers would see their earnings increase.

Robert told Florida’s News-Press that he met an Aussie on a cruise recently, a retired government worker, who said, “the price of everything went up” when Australia raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour, and “it ruined the country.”

But this hysteria over job losses predicted by an organization that readily admits it can’t predict the future can’t be the only reason why people are riled up. Clista, in Fort Worth’s Star-Telegram sees what’s really happening: “The minimum wage increase is a ploy of the Democrats … an emotional tool to lure low-wage workers to vote for them.” And one of the ways to utilize that tool is by leaving it up to the people to vote on the issue. Each state has its own rules on how initiatives get onto the ballot, but they can be summed up thusly: A collaboration of organizations works to gain thousands of signatures, enough to get the legally approved language of defining a fetus as a person or raising the minimum wage on the ballot.

For some, that’s a threat. There is, however, a way around the people.

Alaska’s Republican-led state legislature pushed for a minimum-wage bill earlier this year. That might seem counterintuitive to my dismay, but 43,000 people had already signed a successful initiative to put raising the wage on the ballot in August. If the bill passed, it would cancel-out the ballot measure. The nice thing about passing a bill? You can gut it in the next legislative session, before it’s even had time to take effect. Think that sounds unlikely? The same series of events already happened in Alaska in 2002. In his letter to the editor in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Ed purports that Republicans wanted to pass the bill this spring specifically to kill the initiative, “to avoid bringing out low-income voters who might not vote as the House majority would prefer.”

Still skeptical? Michiganders have been working for months to gather signatures to put higher wages on the ballot. When State Sen. Randy Richardville, the Republican who sponsored the bill to raise the minimum in the state legislature, was asked by reporter Tim Skubick if he’d introduced it just to kill the ballot initiative, he responded: “Yeah, I think that’s fair.”

I feel we’ve lost sight of the children. In the Seattle Times, David has not. Now that there’s a $15-an-hour minimum wage in the city, parents will have “to move to the suburbs so that they can teach their children the responsibility and value in obtaining a starter job”—the notion being that their teens won’t be able to get a job because they’ll be passed over for adults. Though it’s hard not to muss with David’s premise: If you have mobility, well, that’s a bigger win than you’re willing to admit.

And yet, if those Seattle parents decide to stay in town, their “Joe Sixpack” teenagers may start drinking and driving more, according to a University of Connecticut study cited by a staff editorial in The Hartford Courant. According to the researchers, “hiking the minimum wage… may be inadvertently aggravating the problem of teen drinking and driving,” as there is a “robust positive relationship between the minimum wage and the number of alcohol-related accidents involving teen drivers.”

It’s not like we don’t have examples of how badly things have gone in other places with a higher minimum wage. Robert told Florida’s News-Press that he met an Aussie on a cruise recently, a retired government worker, who said, “the price of everything went up” when Australia raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour, and “it ruined the country.” If that’s going to happen here, Steven in the Arkansas Times Record is ready for it: “Holy housewives of Orange County! So, if the girl behind the counter suddenly starts paying her bills on time, the economic shock wave might just knock the earth off its axis? This I’ve got to see.”

 

Gradually raising the minimum wage is just one way to attack this country’s alarming inequality. After reading hundreds of letters, this staunch supporter of higher pay has been easily convinced there’s additional tools at our disposal that should be brought into the mix.

For example, the editorial staff of Oregon’s Portland Tribune suggests closing tax loopholes and regulating risky loans.

From Arizona, J.R. wonders, “Why not make the first $15,000 [people earn] tax free.”

There’s Bradley, in Wyoming’s Tribune Eagle, who asks, “If simply jacking up the minimum wage to $9 per hour were a true solution, why stop there? Why not make it $15 per hour instead? Or $25? Or $50?”

Dozens of other letters across the country made similar suggestions. And they all would’ve gotten a good laugh when Kentucky State Rep. Tim Moore, a Republican, tried to add an amendment to the state’s HB 1, which would raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.10 on July 1, 2014. Here was his idea: “Delete the $0.95 increase per hour… and increase to $29 per hour as of July 1, 2014.”

Alas, the amendment did not make it onto the bill. But let’s add it to the list.

Maybe what we need is an outside-the-box solution? In a bold move, the Republican candidate for governor of Illinois, Bruce Rauner, proposed reducing the minimum wage by $1. If he wants to get elected, he might listen to one of his potential constituents, Jim, who wrote in Illinois’s News Gazette that increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit might be more helpful than raising the minimum wage. For backup, he’s got the mother of all Republican sources: President Ronald Reagan, who in 1986 described the tax cut as “the best anti-poverty, the best pro-family measure to come out of Congress.’”

There’s another historical figure cited often in these editorials: Henry Ford. In New York’s Democrat & Chronicle, Stephen writes, “On Jan. 5, 1914… the hourly wage paid for a production worker [at the Ford Motor Company] went from $2.40/9-hour day to $5.00/8-hour day.” In doing so, Stephen believes that Ford created “the greatest socioeconomic impact of the 20th century” because “he stabilized the workforce” and his employees could eventually buy what they were working to produce. Long before the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 established a national minimum wage and the 40-hour workweek, Henry Ford was paying his employees more, giving them days off, and lo and behold: They felt more loyal to the company and made more cars than ever.

Ford also “stabilized the workforce” through intense surveillance, controlling his employees’ personal lives—but the better parts of his legacy live on today. As the editorial staff of Nebraska’s Star Herald sees it: “Smart employers already pay more than the minimum wage to hold on to experienced, productive workers,” which “exerts upward pressure on wages throughout a community and puts more buying power into the hands of families.”

One of the craftiest things done by opponents of raising the minimum wage is to claim it will kill small businesses. Crafty, because it’s mostly untrue. A national poll done by the Small Business Majority Report showed that 82 percent of small businesses already pay all of their workers more than the minimum wage. Which make sense, since it turns out that two thirds of America’s lowest-wage workers are employed by companies with more than 100 employees. It’s the Walmarts and the McDonalds’ that will have to absorb the cost, which may raise the prices of their products, or reduce their top executives’ compensation. So maybe the next time a CEO resigns, like Mike Duke of Walmart did after threatening to fire workers protesting their low pay, he won’t walk away with a $140 million payout. As Lady Bird, of Nashville, wrote to the Tennessean: “The McDonald’s CEO makes $8 million a year, or $3,846 per hour. This is 530 times the hourly wage of the minimum-wage worker… Is any person worth 530 times more than another?”

Reading these letters, a disturbing realization emerges: The ways in which we are disconnected from our fellow Americans can fill a deep crevasse. One that won’t be bridged with solutions like Mark’s, in Nebraska’s Grand Island Independent, who wrote: “If you want to earn more, then get a higher paying job.”

Perhaps we will never usefully debate higher wages, tax cuts, and closed loopholes if we continue to believe that what we are paid is what we are worth.