Companies like McDonalds and Walmart have raised their workers’ minimum wages. While it is a step forward, Laura Clawson of the Daily Kos has documented that these raises still mean that workers need to rely on government support for child care, housing, medical insurance, breakfast/lunch programs for children, and heating assistance. Clawson then shows that none of these subsidies would be needed if employees were paid $15 an hour. As I noted in my last post, a small increase in price will have great benefits for all. As President Obama said, “America needs a raise.”
Sarah Jaffe of In These Times reports on an effort in Minnesota to fine companies that pay wages so low that employees have to be on state aid. Take Action Minnesota is promoting what it call the “bad business fee,” a fine for each employee who is working while on some form of federal or state support. Jaffe cites a study that claims Walmart employees receive $6.2 billion per year in some form of assistance. That’s $6 billion the American taxpayer is paying to subsidize the nation’s largest private employer – corporate welfare. Jaffe gives several other compelling examples, and I urge you to read her article.
As progressive radio host Thom Hartmann is fond of saying, a business that can’t pay its employees a living wage shouldn’t be in business. People who work for a living shouldn’t have to rely on services that are meant for the poor or unemployed. If we want to promote the work ethic and the dignity of work, we should be as will to say that all workers deserve a living wage. America needs a raise.
Today’s Chicago Sun-Times features a debate on the minimum wage. Tom Balanoff a labor leader, argues that a $15 minimum wage would provide a decent standard of life for workers. Mayor Emanuel’s commission has proposed a $13 an hour minimum phased between now and 2018. Balanoff notes that Los Angeles and Seattle have already passed $15 minimum wage laws. His argument focus on the needs of workers.
Sam Sanchez and Sott Defife, a restaurant owner and an official from the National Restaurant Association, argue that a minimum wage increase will hurt business, that it is “not a silver bullet for addressing the city’s economic challenges.” Twice they call for “comprehensive” measures, but never spell out what they would change. Their focus is on the economy, not the lives of individual workers. Still, they claim that most restaurant workers are young, “first time workers.” Once upon a time, that may have been true. Today most restaurant workers I encounter are adults, often in their thirties or forties. As Sanchez and Defife state, youth unemployment is now over 25%, in no small part because adult men and women who once worked in factories now fill low wage jobs in restaurants or retail.
It’s easy to agree with one side or the other in this debate. I’m for a living minimum wage, which could be index from state to state or region to region. In most places, that would mean at least $15 per hour (an average salary of $30,000 a year). At the same time, small businesses have some reason to be fearful of a minimum wage that would put them at a competitive disadvantage. Franchise restaurants work by economy of scale, which lets them control spending in the way that a small hot dog stand or corner store cannot. If it can be done, minimum wage laws could be written in a way that would protect small businesses. In some ways, that is the current standard in the restaurant industry where tipped workers in many states can be paid less than the minimum wage.
This debate is not simple or easy. My primary concern is with what is fair to working people. A good business will adapt its practices to meet what the market demands. Tax payers should not have to pay for services that help large corporations hire workers at a low wage. We need to demand a society where no one who works full time has to depend on state aid for food, shelter, and healthcare. We need to reward work. America needs a raise.
Too many people are hung up with resentment about poor people who get benefits. What they need to think about instead is the millions of Americans that work hard, but can’t make enough money to live without some kind of state aid. Huffington Post offers a great article on these people, how hard they work, and how they live. If you are against raising the minimum wage, I recommend that you read this article and think about the people it describes