Why — after four decades of increasing income inequality — are so many Americans so viscerally hostile to poor people?
Written in response to President Obama’s declared support for raising the minimum wage, the following meme has circulated on social media for more than a year now:
In earlier iterations, the female fast food worker was “Sally McBurger Flipper,” but in the course of sharing, her name became LaTisha. It is not difficult to deduce the impulse that motivated the change.
The meme manages the neat trick of weaponizing patriotism to attack the working poor. It posits a false choice between supporting our troops and raising the minimum wage.
Every year since 1963, military personnel have received a pay increase. This held true even in years when there were no raises for other federal employees and/or no cost of living adjustment for Social Security beneficiaries. You can see the figures for yourself here.
Although their gross income appears comparable to that of low-wage workers in the private sector, soldiers actually experience a much higher standard of living because the military provides room and board, comprehensive health care and other benefits for them and their families.
Entry-level workers in the private sector typically receive no employer benefits.
Their earnings have fallen steadily over the last several decades, partly because Congress rarely raises the minimum wage. In the ’60s and ’70s, a full-time worker making minimum wage was poor— earning about 80% of the federal poverty rate — but not desperately poor. Since the ’80s, the minimum wage has eroded significantly. Now a full-time worker making minimum wage earns just 60% of the federal poverty rate.
Even that understates the declining incomes of the working poor. Many entry-level laborers can no longer find full-time employment. In order to avoid paying benefits and overtime, many businesses hold workers under 40 hours per week. This forces poor people to work multiple jobs — often totaling more than 40 hours per week — and rely on food stamps and Medicaid to make ends meet.
In 2009, Congress raised the minimum wage to $7.25, but every year it stays there, inflation gradually erodes the income and purchasing power of entry-level workers.
Democrats consistently support increasing the minimum wage; Republicans generally oppose those increases, and some suggest abolishing it altogether.
My modest proposal is that we make the minimum wage a livable wage and index it to inflation so that it stays there. People who work deserve to earn a decent living.
This should happen gradually. Republicans are right that raising the minimum wage to $15 overnight would send shock waves through the economy, kill off thousands of small businesses, disrupt many large corporations and destroy millions of jobs.
However, if we schedule a series of significant annual increases to the minimum wage, we could bring it up to a livable income within a decade while giving the economy ample time to adjust. Then, by instituting automatic adjustments for inflation, we could ensure that the minimum wage never deteriorates again.
In the meantime, we should also reform labor regulations to encourage businesses to offer full-time work. Many employers game the system, pursuing policies of underemployment that force the working poor to juggle multiple part-time jobs and depend on public assistance to survive.
Raising the minimum wage also supports our troops. Many workers in the low-wage economy are the dependents of active military personnel. Some veterans wind up in entry-level jobs after discharge. Johnny Fry-Boy and LaTisha McBurger Flipper may have served you in the armed forces before they served you at McDonalds.
“Here’s the deal, Baconator, you are working in a job designed for a kid in high school who is learning how to work and earning enough for gas….”
If this is true, then why are fast food joints and big box stores open when kids are in school?
“If you have chosen this as your life long profession, you have failed. If you don’t want minimum wage, don’t have minimum skills.”
People should earn a living wage for honest work. Few people work their whole lives in low-wage jobs, and when it happens, it is rarely a matter of preference. Most people are doing the best they can. If you do not know the challenges and struggles that brought a person to their present position in life, then it is wise and decent to refrain from judging them, and kind to consider how you can help.
“If you can read this, thank a teacher.”
No argument there.
“If it’s in English, thank a Veteran.”
No foreign foe has ever threatened to invade and force us to speak a different language. There are some people in this country who speak English because of the US Army, but it seems odd to urge American Indians to thank the military for slaughtering their ancestors.
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