Self-Improvement in the Minimum Wage Debate

I have been reading a lot of the debate about raising the federal minimum wage.

According to the Harvard Business Review’s blog: A single breadwinner who works a $15 per hour job and a 40 hour work week is eligible for food stamps.  If that breadwinner earns less than $16 per hour, they are also eligible for Medicaid assistance to provide healthcare.  Minimum wage jobs, $7.25 an hour, come out to $1160 for a full-time job.  About 1.6 million workers in the U.S. are paid at that level, and 2 million are actually paid less than that under various exemptions. So there are a lot of people working full time and also relying on government assistance in order to eat and maintain stable shelter.

Judging by the comments on articles advocating for a raise in the minimum wage, there are a number of things that some of the vocal posters are clear they do not want to do:

1. Raise the minimum wage

2. Continue giving food stamps and Medicaid to low wage workers

3. Pay more for products and services or ask business owners to share more of their profits with workers

So what does that leave?

What I have found is that at this point the argument tends to boil down to the idea that these are not good jobs, and no one should expect to make a living doing them.  Sometimes commenters say that low wage workers should go to college and this will lead to a better job.  This type of work falls beneath the level where full time work should be enough to sustain a worker financially. It is a class of work that should be actively discouraged except as a way for teenagers to get some job experience before moving on to real employment.  (If the figures on this chart by the Economic Policy Institute are correct, the average age of a minimum wage worker is 35.)

Yet if people’s shopping habits are anything to go by, Americans do want these jobs to exist. At least they seem to want the services low wage workers provide.  People love shopping at Wal Mart. It is the largest retailer in the world, and the largest private employer in the world. It had revenues of $469.162billion this year if Wikipedia is accurate on this. Bottom line, there are a lot of fast food restaurants and big box stores and people seem to value their existence.  Thus, it would seem to follow that we need people to do those jobs and if we need people to do those jobs, somehow we have to figure out how to have them work and get fed at the same time.

There is a moral hazard argument that I have heard that says it is a mistake to pay retail and service workers a living wage because if we do that they might not be motivated to better themselves. They need hunger to prod them on to more productive things.  Otherwise, they might spend their whole lives working at these kinds of jobs.

I got to thinking about this and I wondered, “So?”

Suppose people working full time, providing services that we value enough to support to the tune of billions of dollars a year, were to like their jobs and want to stay in them? Would that be so terrible?

I have worked in fast food and retail, and I can say that there are a lot of reasons that people would want to move on to bigger and better things even without hunger and cold. Standing over the french fry vat while a harried manager shouts at you is hard and not particularly fulfilling work. I had a fast food manager at one establishment routinely call me “stupid and ignorant” based on the amount of ice I put into the large plastic cups. I would have been motivated to move on to authoring books whether fast food paid me enough to live on or not.

Putting that aside for the moment, if the employees were content with their jobs and had enough to support their families why is it socially necessary to prod them to move on?  Is loyalty to an employer something we really want to actively discourage? Is high turn over a big plus? If we like what they provide, and the numbers suggest we do, why should it be beneath anyone’s dignity to do that work?

It seems as though we have an unspoken cultural imperative to “better ourselves.”  It has almost the force of a religious doctrine. It is not only that we take pride in having a society that gives people the opportunity and tools to do better if they chose.  We make self-improvement a moral imperative and failure to do so an ethical failing worthy of shunning and shaming.  If there is one thing an American is supposed to do, it is to keep pushing and striving to reach a higher level.

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