We all have moments we’re not particularly proud of. For me, one surrounds an issue that’s front and center in this year’s election: the debate over a $15 an hour minimum wage.
Back in May I wrote a quick blog post for Seattle Weekly at the onset of one of the first fast-food workers strike in our area. Without much thought I expressed the overall sentiment of our newsroom that morning: that the $15 an hour demand was “probably a bit steep.”
While that was the sentiment of our newsroom that morning – one I held, one many of my colleagues held, not to mention one held by at least three ladies I heard discussing the matter on my bus ride home that evening – I’ve since come to believe we were all wrong. (The fact Dori Monson agreed with us should have been the first glaring sign.)
In hindsight, my reaction was understandable – and probably not uncommon. My first job was at a McDonald’s in Federal Way, making $5 an hour taking the orders of hungry (and often moderately terrible) people heading to Costco or Wild Waves. It was one of the most thankless and exhausting jobs I’ve ever had. But as a 16-year-old high school student entering the workforce – an economic status that most of my coworkers shared - I considered it a rite of passage. I considered it par for the capitalist course. Why should I have been making enough to support a family when I was still in high school and my only real qualification for the job was an ability to legibly fill out an application? I was a skill-less kid, after all. I was the kind of person who should have a low-paying job.
But things have changed, and my initial reaction to the demand for $15 an hour for fast-food workers failed to take this into account. As has been well-reported at this point, the fast-food worker of today is not the fast-food worker of the past. More and more, today’s burger flippers are not just skill-less kids. More and more, blue collar jobs are disappearing, with service industry jobs taking their place.
As $15 minimum wage supporter and venture capitalist Nick Hanauer wrote for Bloomberg:
Low-wage jobs are fast replacing middle-class ones in the U.S. Economy. Sixty percent of the jobs lost in the last recession were middle-income, while 59 percent of the new positions during the past two years of recovery were in low-wage industries that continue to expand such as retail, food services, cleaning and health-care support. By 2020, 48 percent of jobs will be in those service sectors.
Not only are more and more fast-food workers exceptions to the accepted high-school kid stereotype, but the discrepancy of wealth distribution in this country has exploded. As The New York Times recently noted – citing a study by economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty - the top 10 percent of earners raked in over half of the country’s total income in 2012, and the top 1 percent brought home more than one-fifth. In other words, the Occupy movement continues to have a point.
It’s obvious something needs to change, and raising the minimum wage for the low-wage workers that this country’s economics have grown increasingly dependent on seems like as good a place to start as any.
Admittedly, there are real questions about the impact raising the minimum wage would have, both on our economy as a whole and on small businesses trying to survive. Along with an inaccurate view of who is working in fast food these days, my initial reaction to the call for a $15 an hour minimum wage was based on the premise that it would be an incredible hardship on small businesses inadvertently caught up in a battle targeting McDonald’s, Walmart and their ilk.
I’m no longer so sure this is the case.
It seems like for whatever stance you want to have on the subject of a minimum wage hike there’s a study to back it up. Those in favor of raising the minimum wage, like Hanauer, cite studies showing that the move would “inject about $450 billion into the economy each year,” and “directly affect 51 million workers and indirectly benefit an additional 30 million” – giving them the ability to buy more stuff and, in turn, bolster the economy and help businesses prosper. Others worry that raising the minimum wage would mess up our already vulnerable economy, leading to more outsourcing and less jobs. While it’s easy to vilify McDonald’s and Walmart – because, you know, they deserve it much of the time – the impact that an across the board minimum wage hike would have on small business is still a legitimate concern.
After some months of consideration, however, I’m siding with the Hanauers of the world, willing to bet that the bluster behind the anti-minimum-wage-hike crowd is largely the work of those making record profits from the new, increasingly unjust economic landscape we all inhabit. Yes, a minimum wage hike would need to be thoughtful, but I’ve come to believe it can be done without dooming small business and is, in fact, very necessary. Socialist Alternative Seattle City Council candidate Kshama Sawant, for instance, would tax the area’s ridiculously wealthy huge corporate entities to help subsidize any small businesses unable to afford a minimum wage hike. Others have suggested an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit as a way to provide more support for low-wage workers without placing as much burden on small businesses. I’m not sure what the exact solution should look like, but I now believe today’s workers deserve that we try to find it. The road we’re headed down goes nowhere.
Lastly, some historical perspective is helpful. As Goldy over at The Stranger noted on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, MLK’s historic words came as part of a full day of activism – the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” One of the ten demands presented by organizers that day was a national minimum wage act, one that would “give all Americans a decent standard of living.” As Goldy pointed out: “‘Government surveys show that anything less than $2.00 an hour fails to do this,’ the organizers duly noted back in 1963.”
More from The Stranger: “Adjusted for inflation, $2.00 in 1963 dollars would be worth $15.27 today.”
The fact is, even $15 may be a bargain for today’s leaders of industry and commerce. As Hanauer wrote for Bloomberg: “If the minimum wage had simply tracked U.S. productivity gains since 1968, it would be $21.72 an hour -- three times what it is now.”
In a very real sense, a failure to protect the minimum wage has helped lead to the demise of the middle class – so much so that many people today can’t imagine a world where low-wage workers aren’t relegated to sub-standard living and government assistance. But it doesn’t have to be this way, and having a serious conversation about the necessity – and our societal obligation – to provide livable wages is an excellent place to start. In Seattle, $15 an hour may also end up being an excellent place to start.
If you’ve made it this far – and, really, bless your heart if you have – one question that’s probably on your mind is: Why now? None of the information presented is particularly new (proponents have been making the same arguments since the very beginning, after all), and it would have been easy to just pretend like my initial minimum wage skepticism never happened (I mean, have you tried finding something on our website lately?).
For me it was twofold. Most importantly, the election is fast approaching, and voters in SeaTac and Seattle will both be making important decisions about what direction the minimum wage discussion will go in the future. It’s not a decision to be taken lightly, and it will have a very real impact on where things go from here.
Less importantly, but still relevant, I hope my shift will provide a catalyst for others to do the same. Or, at the very least, inspire readers to examine the reasons they believe low-wage workers don’t deserve more of the pie, and ask real questions about whether that rationale holds water in today’s economic landscape.
For me, it just didn’t anymore. And I felt obligated to say it on the record.