Raising the Maximum Wage
Last week, I ran across two stories that caught my attention. The first was a summary of an “analysis” that found that chief executives of large companies made 262 times the average worker's annual pay. This worked out to be about $42,000 a day. From the opposite end of the supposed free market, there came news that the Senate struck down a measure to raise the federal minimum wage. It currently stands at $5.15/hr, just as it has for the last 9 years. So, I guess this led me to the question that some of you may have. Why don’t we really give a damn that there are people out there busting their asses in exchange for a five dollar bill and fifteen pennies an hour?
First, an answer from the other side. I spoke with a diehard Republican regarding this issue and he seems to think that there’s really no need to raise the minimum wage. He argues that minimum wage positions are supposed to be occupied by teens who are just entering the workplace on a temporary basis while they secure their financial futures via education.
On its surface, this argument seems to hold water. Most of us have, at some point in our youth, worked at some slave-wage hole-in-the-wall that convinced us to pursue an education or gain some skills that would allow us to forever turn our backs on that kind of vocation. Indeed, many of us are currently fortunate enough to be able to share that experience with our children so that they can understand the value of perseverance. The major problem with this idea, though, is that there’re a ton of people who have either lost decent jobs for any number of reasons (to line the pockets of the already-rich, because positions were sent overseas, or, my favorite, the company decided to go in “another direction” – namely away from YOU) and who are forced to work wherever they can. Not many of us could wait for an adequate replacement if we were to lose our jobs tomorrow. More than likely, we’d have to find something and hold on to it just to get by.
Another major glitch in this line of reasoning is that it assumes that everyone has equal access to education, or to the development of marketable, transferable skills. It’s a comforting assumption that absolves those of us who don’t wish to complicate our lives with empathy, or who benefit, directly or indirectly, from the exploitation of low wage earners.
Also, there’s what many Realtors refer to as location. Some areas just have more jobs than others. So, for instance, if you’re unfortunate enough to have been working for a car manufacturer that decided to eliminate your well-paying job, and said car manufacturer was the only game in town, AND you’ve got a family a mortgage and a couple of car notes, you’re probably not going to find a quick, commiserate replacement for your paycheck at the local Piggly Wiggly.
But, to be honest, the fundamental problem that I have with this standard Republican objection to raising the minimum wage is that it blames the poor. The idea that “these people” are completely at fault for their condition is pervasive, (indeed, I can recall sitting in a college classroom listening to people make the case that society needs poor people) and is the primary reason why we haven’t seen a minimum wage increase in over nine years.
We Americans are a peculiar lot. Despite all sociological and personal evidence to the contrary, we avidly nurse the myth of the industrious, self-made millionaire who, despite all odds, pulled himself up by the bootstraps to control his own financial destiny. Even though the only things that separate many of us from $5.15 an hour are the whims of the faceless executives at the tops of the companies that employ us, we feel no solidarity with our low wage brethren. Since most of us assume that we’re safely lodged in the middle class, we believe that all we need to move up a notch or two and retire early (or at least comfortably) is some combination of pluck, perseverance or diligence. Horatio Alger would be proud of us.
In the meantime, as we continue to work longer hours for less pay, less leave, fewer benefits and vacation hours, and shrinking or completely nonexistent retirement funds, the corporate fat cats who are responsible for our deprivation are being rewarded to the tune of $42,000.00 a day. Ain’t life grand?