I used to work for minimum wage. But it’s not like it was some great inconvenience to me. At first, I was a high school and then college student just making a bit of money, with my folks covering the food, shelter, clothing and health care parts of the equation. Later, returned from stints in Japan, I got minimum wage jobs at movie theaters because they were not a strain in terms of hours worked and were good for getting in study; also, I was mostly living off of savings I’d made while working in Japan as I got my degrees at the state university.
But actually living off of minimum wage, with no one to fall back on, no one to help support you, and no savings to use, even in a pinch… that’s a scary thought.
The minimum wage is currently $5.15 per hour, and has been since 1997, for eight years now. While that sounds like a goodly amount more than the $3.35 I used to get right out of high school in 1982, one factor runs that illusion into the ground: inflation. Your money doesn’t get you what it used to. In 1998 dollars, the 1981 minimum wage was $6.15. In 2005 dollars, that would have been about $6.50.
The minimum wage today has again dropped to very low levels, and if you look at this chart you’ll see that before the Reagan era, in which minimum wage was allowed to fester and stagnate, the minimum wage in 2004 dollars was between $6 and $7 an hour for the previous two decades. Currently, Congress is talking about hikes in the minimum wage, but there is the usual argument over how great a hike it should be. Do I even need to tell you that the Democrats are pushing for the biggest wage increases, and the Republicans and shutting them down, arguing for far lesser increases, and trying to weasel in a great number of exceptions and amendments for even more tax cuts for wealthy people?
Senator Kennedy is aiming high, for a $2 hike in the minimum wage, which would bring it back up to where it was in the 1960’s. The Republican response if for a $1.10 hike, which would be treading water, similar to hikes in 1991 and 1997, or to the middle of the Reagan era when the wage was in a historic downward slide. But more than that, the Republican plan would double the minimum-business-income exemption to paying minimum wage from half a million dollars a year to a million, meaning a lot more people would be getting a huge pay cut, not a raise. The plan also calls for doing away with a requirement for the minimum wage to be paid if the business deals in any kind of interstate commerce. Another large group of people would get their wages slashed.
The GOP would also allow businesses to play with their worker’s pay periods so as to maximize their ability to avoid paying overtime. Republicans claim this is only if the worker agrees, which is another way of saying it is mandatory. I worked on a minimum wage job in the early 80’s where if you worked overtime, you got paid just the regular wage; after one employee sued, the bosses simply had us re-work our time cards so that the overtime was spread out so little or no overtime appeared to be happening. If we did not agree to sign these, we would have been fired. (On a side note, when I quit later, I successfully sued that employer in small claims court for unpaid overtime hours–but could not reclaim the overtime after they made me re-work the time cards.)
What is it like to live at the minimum wage today? Morgan Spurlock, the guy who at only fast food for 30 days in the divisive “Supersize Me” documentary, carried the idea over, in a way, to a much higher and more respectable level in his new 6-part series on the FX Channel, called “30 Days.” In each episode, a person from one part of society (usually representing a group thought of as more “normal”) would spend 30 days in the life of a culture very different from their own–a sort of “walk a mile in another man’s shoes” concept. The first episode had the filmmaker Spurlock and his fiancé spending 30 days living at the minimum wage.
The experience for them was brutal. Spurlock worked one and often two full-time jobs, his fiancé worked in a restaurant with meager tips (although there is a national exception for restaurants, not mentioned in the show, to include tips in deciding the minimum wage for their workers). Even with a cheap, under-heated apartment over what was recently a crack house, free clothes and furniture from a charitable organization, and three full-time jobs between them, they went way over budget due to hospitalization. (They could not even come close to affording insurance; Spurlock had to see a doctor for an injured wrist, his fiancé for a urinary tract infection. And remember, these are the kind of people who will be hit hard by the recent Republican cave-in to the credit industry, the new law that will make it harder for poor people to escape debt, even in medical emergencies.) And that was without kids.
And it is examples like this which make a mockery out of plans to offer “vouchers” for public schools which would give families thousands of dollars less per child per year than it would require to pay for schools. And it gives new emphasis to providing national health care, insuring tens of millions of Americans who presently have no insurance. We know the Spurlock and his fiancé are headed back toward a better life after their month is up, but seeing them talking about not being able to afford to get a health concern looked after, having no choice but to work when sick or injured–it’s a scary thought.
And yet countless millions of Americans live in this hole from which it is next to impossible to escape. Let the Republicans who spout on about how people can become wealthy if they only got off their asses and tried, let those assholes try living like Spurlock did for a month–hell, for a year–and see how much they talk about how easy it is after that. Betcha they’d shut up real fast.
Simply put, minimum wage is not enough to live on. A single full-time job would earn only $10,712 a year, $4,000 below the poverty line for a family of three. But imagine single parents, who have to somehow arrange day care, whose children suffer if the parent must work overtime, without even the luxury of having two parents able to work. Live like this for a while and you’ll begin to understand what a mockery the minimum wage is. Even Kennedy’s proposed $2 hike would only barely push that working single mother just a hair above the poverty line. And if you think that’s good news, ask yourself if you’d like to live just a hair above the poverty line.
In the meantime, the Republican Congress continues to stall and push back minimum wage reform. Even the paltry hike they proposed didn’t get through–despite the fact that they could easily push it through with only a minimum of effort, which tells us that even when they talk about raising the wage a bit, even with all their new loopholes and exceptions–they’re lying about it even then. They don’t want to raise the minimum wage at all.
And what’s their reason? The same tired old argument: that raising the minimum wage would result in economic disaster. Well, they argue that every time, and there’s no evidence for it at all. The last two wage hikes took place right before and right in the middle of the biggest economic expansion in recent history. Raising the wage didn’t even cause a hiccup.
Henry Ford was far from a wonderful human being, but he had a very good viewpoint when it came to paying workers well: workers should earn enough money to buy the products the companies make. That’s what drives the economy. Strange, when it comes to giving trillion-dollar tax breaks to the wealthy, Republicans are all about injecting money into the economy. The whole idea of “trickle-down” economics was that the lower classes would bolster the economy by spending money (once it filtered down through the rich). And Republicans are all about the common people working hard for a living. So why is it they suddenly run in circles, screaming and shouting death and disaster, whenever someone suggests that workers get paid a fair, living wage for a hard day’s work?
All the corrupt societies are top-down. We should be bottom-up.