Who Deserves a “Living Wage?”

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Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what a living wage means.  (Well, mostly I’ve been thinking about how we just switched jobs and moved across state to renovate and move into my parent’s house, and care for my mother with Alzheimer’s.  Which is why I haven’t written in so long, but I miss you guys!)  I understand the economic argument against raising the minimum wage, and I also understand the argument that a $7 or $8 minimum wage is sufficient because jobs like fast food are meant for teenagers, not for family breadwinners.  But here’s something that I haven’t really heard people talking about: what are you supposed to do in an economy where adults supporting families are forced to resort to minimum-wage jobs?  Sure, there’s still plenty of teenagers working at McDonald’s who only need spending cash; but there are also plenty of older or more qualified people, who have a much more important need for a living wage, but who couldn’t find any other place to work.

I’ve worked at McDonald’s, making $7.50 an hour, alongside a single mother with a mentally disabled son, who gave up her much higher-paying job as a nurse because she “couldn’t stand to watch people die anymore.”  I’ve worked at a factory, making $8.50 an hour, alongside a single mother who took on extra overnight shifts when she was seven months pregnant, to make more money.  I’ve worked at a grocery store deli for $9 an hour, alongside a woman who was mostly supporting her daughter and granddaughter, but couldn’t work more than a few days a week because of an injured back.  I’ve also watched my boss at the deli, a married father of two, who took nine years to work up to manager so that he can support his family–even though it meant working at least 50 hours a week.  These are not the people that minimal-wage jobs are designed for; but they are doing these jobs, and we can’t just pretend they’re not there.

I just heard a new argument, too.  On his Facebook page, blogger Matt Walsh argues that people shouldn’t be able to live comfortably on minimum wage, because it will make them complacent:

“Well, you can’t live comfortably on minimum wage.” Yes, of course you can’t. That’s the point. You aren’t supposed to live there anyway. You get in and you get out. You move up and on. And while you’re moving, you shouldn’t be pursuing a “comfortable life,” necessarily, but a successful and fulfilling one.

In this article, Walsh elaborates:

You’re supposed to get in and get out. Move in and move one. You’re meant to use it as a platform on your way to something better, but the platform is not meant to be a comfortable place to set up camp and hang out for a few decades.

Now look; I do actually know people who are perfectly comfortable staying at these dead-end jobs, just as long as they have enough money for beer and pot.  But I also know people who are stuck there, and it’s not from any lack of trying.  Does Walsh really think that people can automatically have a “successful and fulfilling” life just by working hard?  What about people in a poor economic area?  What about people with disabilities?  What about people who have had successful and fulfilling careers, but have suffered losses which make it impossible for them to continue?  At the factory, I worked with a gentle Vietnam vet who had lost a lot of his fine motor control because of a combat injury, so he could only perform the simplest assembly-line tasks.  I guess he should have tried harder to climb the corporate ladder.  At the deli, I worked with an chivalrous ex-Marine, firefighter, and steel worker who suffered from some sort of mental illness.  He was fond of telling me that he had delivered four babies on duty as a firefighter; but now his mental state was such that he couldn’t handle the stress of a small-town deli dinner rush.  I guess he should have dug deeper and found some more ambition.

I don’t know what the economic solution for this is.  I understand that, no matter how much these people may need or deserve a higher wage, companies cannot just raise their wages across the board without compensating by hiring fewer people or raising prices.  I recently had an idea: what if companies paid new hires on a sliding scale, depending on their circumstances?  Teenagers living at home could be paid the bare minimum.  People with young children would be paid more.  People whose spouses had high-paying jobs would be paid on the lower end of the scale; people who were single parents, sole breadwinners, or suffering the effects of disabilities would be paid on the higher end.

I’m really not sure if this could work economically, or how you could guarantee people’s situations would be judges justly, or what safeguards you could build in to .prevent the employer from playing favorites.  But I honestly can’t think of a better principle to base a solution on.  I do know of one employer who implemented something similar: a Catholic priest, who employed my friend to do maintenance on the church and parish school grounds, told him that he would get a raise when he got married, and another raise for each child he had.  I don’t know if this would work for most companies, but it sounds to me like an ideal policy.  What you think?  Do you know of any companies, or countries, that have tried something similar?

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2 thoughts on “Who Deserves a “Living Wage?”

  1. I think that a personalized approach that you describe could work in a small family company where everyone knows each other, similar to how socialism is a great system that only works in small, devoted groups.

    Corporations being what they are, suddenly the incentive is there to only hire the teenagers or the young, unmarried, childless people. That’s not sustainable, obviously, but no corporation is going to “do the right thing” and just pay people more based on station in life, and while this system is collapsing there will be a lot of suffering along the way.

    I think what we do have in the welfare system is basically what you’re talking about (life circumstance-sensitive wages) except the cost is borne by the public rather than the company. It works better for everyone this way because now everyone has a (theoretically) equal chance to hire and get work, and the government fills in the wage gap (again, theoretically).

    What’s messing with the system is that we have this welfare cliff that keeps people trapped –

    A family can go from not-terribly-uncomfortable to destitute by getting an INCREASE in income and they won’t make up that lost standard of living for YEARS (if ever). I actually lived this phenomenon myself and it SUCKS to have twice the income and same family size as your neighbor and yet have to feed your growing children Ramen on a regular basis (while she has money to go out a couple times a month).

    So even setting aside disability and other issues (which public assistance programs REALLY should help with to the extent they don’t already), there are plenty of situations where working hard can backfire and so people make the rational decision to stay where they are.

    I say restructure public benefits to fix the welfare cliff problem and then see what shakes out as we move to a system where making more money is rewarded rather than penalized.

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  2. Ideas:

    1) Make a law that says that any given company (including subsidiaries and parent/umbrella companies) has to pay its lowest-paid employee at least a hundredth of what the highest-paid employee (usually the CEO) makes. If the CEO of McDonald’s or Walmart wants $5M/year, the burger-flippers and sales people have to make at least $50,000. Currently, CEO of McD’s is in the range of $18M, I think, and $35M for Walmart. Walmart has a lot of employees, so even $30M spread evenly among them might not add up to much for each employee. But it will re-direct the management’s financial priorities into raising wages.

    2) Invest more in adult education programs. Education is one of the single biggest factors helping people move up, career-wise. Making it easier for people to learn completely new trades mid-life or to learn more within their chosen career could really help our economy out, I think.

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