Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Minimum Moral Wage

Minimal Minimum Wage
Minimal Minimum Wage (Photo credit: PropagandaTimes)
I've found myself avoiding online debates over the recent drive to increase the minimum wage. Not due to any decrease in my beliefs or convictions, but because it's just so exhausting.

Then again, debating anything that has become divided opinion-wise along ideological lines is an uphill climb lately. Thanks to the advances of internet search engines and social media sharing, we've all becoming experts in selective research. Our access to information has grown exponentially over the past couple of decades, and so has our ability to cherry-pick the facts that best support our beliefs. We're not more informed, we're just better armed to rationalize our beliefs.

This isn't a new complaint, of course. The more access to alternate news sources there are, the more there are people whining about there being too many alternate news sources. The noise about information technologies catering to the individual is probably just as loud as the noise over saving Net Neutrality, so I really don't have anything new to bring to the table in that regard. You find your statistics to back your side of the argument, and I'll find those that buttress mine.

It's an especially frustrating forfeit with this particular topic, as those arguing against raising the minimum wage tend to rely on erroneous or outright contradictory "facts." My favorites are the ones who will claim that raising the minimum wage is unnecessary because only a small percentage of the workforce actually earns minimum wage, then turn around and declare that increasing the minimum wage will destroys small businesses and cause retail and service prices to skyrocket. So it's an issue that is both small enough to be ignored, yet massive enough to destroy the very fabric of our economy.

Of course, the scare tactic that claims raising the minimum wage will make your Walmart shopping trip twice as expensive is not only inherently greedy, but patently false. More intellectually dishonest is the claim regarding the small minority of minimum wage workers, which feeds off of select data included in recent government studies that shows the minimum wage workforce at around 6%. These claims are technically true, but completely ignore employees earning only a fraction more than the minimum wage. If you look at labor studies for the number of full-time wage earners working for under $10 an hour (the proposed federal minimum wage, which comes to roughly $20,000 a year), that number of undervalued employees skyrockets to 26% of the workforce. The Small Business and Higher Price-tag arguments, on the other hand, intentionally ignore that the biggest minimum wage (and just above minimum wage) employers are the major retail and fast food chains that constantly record profits in the billions - billions earned with the sweat of the low-wage laborer. The fact that most of these same corporate empires have seen increased profits due to more of the working poor being forced to buy their cheap shit, and that more and more of their minimum wage employees are also forced to enroll in government aid programs, is an additional irony that they tend to overlook as well. And we haven't even gotten into stagnant wages against CEO bonuses and the rate of inflation.

But again, it's pointless submitting any of this as evidence, because if you just don't like the idea of the minimum wage being increased to $10, you can easily find some think tank study that predicts Armageddon if low-wage workers are paid "more than they're worth," and if you're really unlucky, they might start throwing Ayn Rand quotes at you.

Quick tip: If someone ever confronts you with a quote from Atlas Shrugged, feign interest and ask to borrow their copy of the book, then beat them over the head with it until they cry and run away (does not work with eBook versions).

So what do you do? Abandon your ideals? I am a firm believer in raising the minimum wage. I have worked as middle management in both corporate retail and small business service industry, and in both instances I have seen abuse and dismissal of a workforce that is vital to the very existence of these successful businesses. I have seen hours intentionally kept below full-time to avoid employee benefits, I have seen intentional under-staffing followed by increased workloads without additional compensation, and I have even seen flagrant violations of federal labor laws regarding the tracking of payroll hours and compensation for overtime work. I have worked alongside the people affected by these inhumane practices, and I am morally opposed to how these people are being treated by their employers.

Maybe morality is how this battle needs to be waged (pun intended). Perhaps if we stop drying to dig up reports that attempt to statistically prove our point, maybe we just need to start point out that paying a living wage to employees responsible for the company's profit is just "the right thing to do." Do we seriously want our country, which some would (falsely) argue was founded on Christian principles, to allow business owners to exploit the working poor? If hard work is to be glorified as a national principle, isn't it fair that we reward that hard work as well?

I don't know. Maybe you just can't debate somebody who is dead-set against anything that would enable somebody to benefit from something they can't get themselves. What can you say to the guy making enough to support his own family when the only reason he's against somebody else being paid enough to feed their own children is because he doesn't want to feel any less special. How do you expand the world view of people struggling to maintain their myopic outlook? If somebody is willing to suppress the earning power of retail workers just so they can save twenty-five cents on a lawn chair, is the moral argument actually going to sway them?

It's all very frustrating. If it wasn't for the fact that morality has been slowly winning out over the years when it comes to civil rights, marriage equality, and maybe even immigration, I'd probably be completely despondent. But progress is evident, even when your cousin on Facebook is willing to make political campaign contributions in order to ensure that the person serving him his food can't afford to purchase a healthy meal of their own. There's still hope. Sometimes, occasionally, real morality wins.

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