On March 26, California became the first state in the Union to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, with our own governor, Andrew Cuomo, pining to follow in its footsteps. And it’s about time. Faced with both Democratic presidential candidates promising to raise the minimum wage upon their election, opponents of a higher minimum wage have started to throw everything they have on to the national stage. Any opposition to a higher minimum wage, however, is ignoring both historical precedent and the plight of current low-income workers.
The idea of a minimum wage was born in the Gilded Age, when our country’s industry was booming and factory owners were becoming some of the wealthiest people of their time and of the present day- if inflation is accounted for. This gilded economic surface, however, masked the suffering working class. Millions of Americans had flocked to cities to work at the new factories that were making obsolete traditional home industries and left farms that were being driven out by larger farming operations. The industrialists who hired these people gleefully took advantage of them, consistently lowering wages to cut costs. Eventually, the workers fought back in the Progressive Era and gained a minimum wage. The purpose of that minimum wage was not, as opponents of a minimum wage increase like to say today, supposed to be a wage for teenagers working part time. The minimum wage was for men and women who toiled eight hours a day or longer, in hard and dangerous working conditions, to make ends meet. That is what the minimum wage needs to be today.
It’s well known that someone working eight hours a day, earning $8.75 an hour, cannot survive. An individual on minimum wage can barely afford food and housing, let alone healthcare, which is almost never provided by low income workplaces, utilities and quality of life goods. What isn’t well established, however, is just who takes minimum wage. The common myth is that the only people working minimum wage jobs are college students with free time or teenagers looking for an extra buck. In the current economy, despite what conservatives would like us to think, that isn’t true. The middle class still hasn’t recovered from the devastating layoffs after the 2008 financial crisis, and while the official unemployment rate has gone back to five percent, most of the new jobs are either temporary, part time or low income jobs. A book called Nickel and Dimed published in 2001, before the economic crisis, shows our economic reality. America’s low-wage service jobs are staffed by struggling people from every age group and every race, and every one of them is caught in an inescapable cycle of poverty with our current minimum wage. The life of a minimum wage worker struggling to get by consists often of as many jobs as they can take. Working two shifts a day at high stress jobs, as a waiter, for example, leaves no time for an individual to prepare themselves to move up, and at $8.75, the alternative is starving or sleeping outside.
The other prevalent argument is one that hasn’t been proven; the notion that raising the minimum wage will destroy jobs, making it more expensive to hire workers and operate businesses. While raising the minimum wage will obviously make hiring people more expensive, economists are torn on whether this will actually destroy jobs. Furthermore, there can and should be different minimum wages for people over and under 18, or more accurately, based on whether one is providing for themselves. There are also various ways to account for teenagers working not to support themselves but just to work, like paid internships. A $15 minimum wage wouldn’t be forcing businesses to pay $15 an hour for unimportant tasks done by teenagers, because businesses could just offer paid internships instead. It’s a glaringly obvious solution that has so far been completely ignored in national discourse.
Regardless, the minimum wage is meant to provide a minimum standard of living in America, for anyone willing to work eight hours a day, five days a week to earn it. Technically, someone could certainly live off of $8.75, or even less. Their life would be a poor one, assuming they worked one job, living in abject poverty.
But a minimum wage, as I’ve reiterated so many times, is not just to survive. It is, or should and can be, a measure to ensure distribution of wealth. In our society of abundance, it is a moral imperative to make sure every single person has a meaningful life. America has moved past the stage of needing to sacrifice the well-being of the poor in every way to ensure that the rich stay richer. The middle class is shrinking and has been shrinking for years. We need better jobs but we also need the bottom of the income level to be higher, both to raise up our lower class and provide a higher standard for every wage.
This election, this moment in American history, is a turning point. The opportunity to close the growing wealth gap in America is staring us in the face, and it won’t come again. Raising the minimum wage to $15 is a clear message that every single American born and raised in this country, or even those partaking in it for the first time, have the right to share in its prosperity. Every citizen has the right to prosper economically if they choose to work, not just the right to survive. In our town, we live in a bubble. None of us are ever likely to experience the cycle of poverty that afflicts everyone currently on the minimum wage, but most of the country doesn’t have the opportunities we have here. The time for incremental change is long past, and the time for bold moves is here whether we like it or not. It’s time for a $15 minimum wage.
By Sam Mollin