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Currently Speaking Mailbag - Minimum Wage (with Response)

Posted by Currently Speaking Viewers on

On the 2/10/2015 show, Ryan Petersen stated that the minimum wage was never intended to be a living wage. I adamantly disagree.

In my brief search of the history of the minimum wage, I found a quote from then president Roosevelt that stated, "No business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country." 

In the mid-'60s, I worked for minimum wage. That wage allowed me to afford a used car, buy my clothes, pay for my class pictures, school ring, dates and my first year in college. In 1999, I went to work for a parts manufacturer making $9-something an hour which was greater than the current minimum wage, but less buying power than I earned in the 1960s.

Mr. Peterson's statement that people need more education to find higher paying jobs reeks of intellectual snobbery. It strongly suggests that only those educated beyond a basic educational level deserve to earn a living wage. 

I contend that in order for an 18 year old (an adult) to support themselves, let alone continue their education, they need a living wage. In part because of the erosion of labor unions, obtaining a living wage for those who are not intellectually inclined is as elusive as finding diamonds in Michigan.

Further, it seems to me that we live in an investment driven economy and that as long as corporate profits are ever increasing the economy is deemed as healthy. So millions of people are unemployed and/or underemployed but the economy is doing fine.

I used to think that the economy was healthy when more people had money to spend on items such as food and shelter, not to mention doctors and medication. Not just sit back and see how well their investments are doing.

-Bob from Glennie

Bob from Glennie has provided a thoughtful and articulate response to my recent blog post on the minimum wage and I very much appreciate his participation in this discussion. While Bob and I will probably have to “agree to disagree” on some points, I do take issue with the way in which he has characterized a few of my arguments and I would like to clarify my position for the record.

First, I am not suggesting that adults who are working full-time and supporting themselves or their families shouldn’t be able to earn a living wage. What I am arguing is that that raising the minimum wage is not the best way to accomplish this goal; in fact, it is probably the worst way to do so. 

As outlined in my original post, raising the minimum wage disproportionally benefits young workers who are still financially dependent on their parents, while simultaneously hurting the overwhelming majority of adult workers who already make more than the minimum wage (particularly those struggling to make ends meet). 

A government-mandated increase to the minimum wage is just about the least efficient, least effective, and most counterproductive way of trying to ensure that financially independent adults are able to earn a living wage.

Second, Bob accuses me of “intellectual snobbery” when I argue that the costs of raising the minimum wage would be better spent on education and training programs. He seems to think I am suggesting that everyone should attend a 4-year university and earn a bachelor’s degree, when, in fact, I am saying no such thing. 

I am referring to education and training broadly defined. For some, this might indeed involve college and a 4-year degree, but I am also speaking about associate’s degrees, certificates, apprenticeships, on-the-job-training, and the like.

Community colleges (where I have spent almost all of my teaching career) offer many non-degree and career-oriented programs, in fields ranging from office assisting to welding; a bachelor’s degree is far from being the only option for someone looking to earn a decent living. 

I don’t think it snobbish or unrealistic to imagine that, for significantly less money than the costs associated with raising the minimum wage, government or employer-sponsored programs could provide the very few adults actually trying to support themselves on minimum wage with the opportunity to acquire the skills and credentials necessary to move into jobs that do pay a living wage. 

Finally, as I argued in my original post, there is a place for jobs that pay something less than minimum wage; not for adults working full-time and trying to support themselves or their families, but, again, for teenagers, students, and others working part-time and during the summer.

I started working when I was 13 years old and was actually paid less than the minimum wage, as it was agricultural work that paid by the pound harvested instead of by the hour. During high school, I was employed in the fast food industry and earned minimum wage. While in college, I worked on a grounds crew at a nearby public golf course, which also started at minimum wage. 

During this entire time, I was still either entirely or partially financially dependent on my parents. Surely Bob isn’t suggesting that, as a 13-year-old living at home with my parents and picking strawberries during the summer, my employer should have been required to pay me a living wage? Or that the owner of the fast food restaurant where I worked part-time should have been compelled to pay me (at the age of 16) a salary large enough support a family? 

Raising the minimum wage might benefit the very young in the workforce (at least a little bit), but it ultimately hurts far more adults than it helps.

-Ryan Petersen

Opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Andy Rapp, Q-TV, Delta College, or PBS.


Currently Speaking host Andy Rapp

Veteran journalist Andy Rapp has been hosting Currently Speaking since 1999.

Each week, he's joined live in the studio by journalists, academics, and experts. Along with viewers at home, they tackle the local, national, and global issues that matter most.