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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7 Quick Takes: Kids’ Shows that are not Horrible

Seven kids’ shows that are not horrible, in order from “shows I can’t help sitting down and watching with the kids” to “shows I don’t mind in the background” to “shows I’m not crazy about, but are remarkably unobnoxious.”  These are all available on Netflix or Amazon Prime.

1. Pocoyo


I was skeptical, but this is pretty hilarious. Fun soundtrack, ducks who can dance like Michael Jackson, and narration by Stephen Fry.  Here’s a pretty creative episode featuring Ride of the Valkyries:

2. Peep and the Big Wide World

Okay, I might have a weakness for cartoons with little segments of cute kids doing science experiments–or ducks with hats?–but I really enjoy watching the egotistic, ridiculous Quack (who reminds me a bit of the Humbug in The Phantom Tollbooth, or maybe Toad in The Wind in the Willows, the sarcastic Chirp, and the enthusiastic Beaver Boy, whose teeth get bored if he doesn’t have something to chew on.  Tongue-in-cheek narration by Joan Cusack and education that’s not too heavy-handed make this easier for grown-ups to watch.

3. Tinga Tinga Tales

This is like a lovely children’s book–classic stories, moral endings that aren’t too heavy-handed, and beautiful design.  I love the animals’ different accents, too.

4. Mighty Machines

I learned a lot from this show.  Every machine you can think of, from construction vehicles and race cars to factory robots and salt mine jeeps, explains their job in random hokey accents.  They sound just like you do when you’re playing with your kids and speaking in persona garbage truck: “hey, look how much garbage I can push!  Boy, does that stink!  Have you ever SEEN this much garbage, kids?”  I can’t find a link of the steamroller with the Louis Armstrong voice singing “I roll up, / I roll down, / I push the dirt / into the ground, / oh yeahhh,” so here’s the glorious intro:

5. Kipper

This is just a sweet, gentle show.  It’s great for kids who really need to calm down but refuse to nap.  Narrated, believe it or not, by Martin Clunes of Doc Martin!

6. Wonderpets

Okay, I find the animation in this very freaky, and it’s pretty heavy-handed.  But it’s also kind of sweet, and pretty funny.  And we sing the song all the time at the deli.  What’s gonna work?  Teeeeamwork!
7. Handy Manny

Okay, hear me out!  This looks like the usual Disney obnoxiousness, but it’s really not too bad.  My favorite parts are that Manny speaks with a pleasant, adult voice, instead of a whiny, hyper kid’s voice, and that the Spanish words it teaches are integrated into the dialogue naturally (instead of shrieking, Dora-style, “CAN YOU SAY ‘HOLA??!'” Manny will say “today we’re going to la playa–the beach.”)  Much less annoying, and much more educational.

I’ve also been pleasantly surprised to find that Reading Rainbow is much better than I remembered, Sesame Street is hilarious and not at all the PC, Cookie-Monster-now-eats-kale travesty people freak out about, and Curious George is just as delightful and imaginative as the books, if not more. What are your favorite kids’ shows?

Hop over to This Ain’t The Lyceum for more Seven Quick Takes!

The Hidden Cross of ADHD

Quick post before I go to work.  I work at a supermarket deli with a boy I’ll call Steve.  He’s extremely hard to work with–rushes around all the time, making funny faces and talking constantly and singing at the top of his lungs, making unfortunate jokes, telling everyone what to do.  The hardest part is that he never gets anything done himself.  He’s extremely obnoxious and slows everyone down, and he can’t understand why nobody likes him.  He’ll charge in and order everyone around, start doing some simple task, then immediately get distracted by three other things.  He’ll stop what he’s doing to answer the phone call you were about to pick up.  At the end of the day, he’s complaining how exhausted he is from working so hard, and he certainly has been running around all day–he’s not lazy–but somehow he’s gotten nothing done, and everyone else has to pick up his slack.

Even the nice people can hardly deal with Steve.  I’m one of the ones who’s nicest to him, and I’ve still lost my temper with him many, many times.  Until the other day, when it suddenly occurred to me: Steve has ADHD.  He’s not stupid, and he’s not lazy; he just can’t keep his mouth quiet and his mind and body still enough to complete a single thing.  And here I am, treating him like a jerk, when it’s not really his fault.

I work with a lot of people with various disabilities, and with most of them it’s easy enough to tell, from their slow speech or their facial structure, that they have mental problems.  But when a person has a disability like ADHD, it’s easy to mistake his symptoms for character flaws.  These people have a hidden cross: they have an excuse for being hard to live with, but it’s not very evident, so they get judged unfairly.  I’m ashamed of myself for not seeing it sooner, since I have a close friend with ADHD and I should have seen the signs earlier.  I’m resolving to be more aware, in the future, that many more of my co-workers may have hidden crosses like this.

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One last note, about ADHD: the friend I mentioned above was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult, and it was literally life-changing.  I was reluctant to accept the diagnosis, because I grew up in an era when classroom diagnosis of ADHD was rampant and lots of kids were medicated unnecessarily.  But I learned that ADHD is not just some trendy diagnosis-du-jour, but something that can really drag down an otherwise intelligent, creative, and hard-working person.  It makes you look like an unaccomplished person who can never see things through, when in reality you’re working as hard as you can.  It makes you doubt your self-worth, and blame yourself for your failures instead of blaming your disability.  And it can be very hard for other people to recognize, because it doesn’t always fit the stereotype of the hyperactive little boy; often it is characterized as the “innattentive” type, which doesn’t involve hyperactivity at all.  I’d encourage everyone to read a book that opened my eyes to the reality of ADHD: Driven to Distraction by Edward Hallowell and John Ratey.  There’s also an extremely helpful book by Melissa Orlov, The ADHD Effect on Marriage, which despite the title can be a good guide for friends and relatives, not just spouses.