At the risk of annoying old friends and making new enemies, I want once more to say a few words about the minimum wage. Not that I have any special expertise in that area, or that I've stumbled upon a solution that will please everybody. Mostly I just have some opinions and some questions.
I hear, as I have heard before, that increasing the minimum wage will have a severe negative effect on the economy. I've never owned a business, so I can't argue that point from a personal perspective. But I have to wonder -- 20 states and the District of Columbia, evidently unwilling to wait for Federal government action, have raised the minimum wage on their own. I have been unable to find any indication that the economy in any of them has gone into the tank as a result. Having heard that warning in years past, before every hike in the minimum wage, and having seen the economy continue unscathed, I'm a bit skeptical.
I hear, as I have heard before, that minimum wage jobs are mostly entry-level jobs filled by teenagers. In the first place, how is it fair to pay teenagers less simply because they're teenagers? At the age of 18, I swung a 12-pound sledge hammer, in summer sun, for eight hours or more a day, for minimum wage. No ordinary adult could have done that job any better than I did. And in the second place, there are many low-wage jobs being filled by adults, far more now than at times in the past. It is also true that increasing the minimum wage tends to increase wages at levels above minimum, so it's pretty clear that the impact is not just on supposedly carefree teenagers. It affects much of the work force to some degree. While this may seem like adding insult to injury for the employer, it has the overall effect of increasing the money flow throughout the economy. More money in the worker's pocket, more purchasing power to buy what the employer is producing or selling.
I should also point out that a high number of low-wage jobs are now filled by women, often single mothers. Do we continue the lop-sided treatment of women in the work place, or do we try to give them an even break?
Some argue that increasing the minimum wage will cause employers to reduce their workforce, either by eliminating jobs or by failing to fill positions. The most recent expert studies show that a relatively small job loss will be offset by the positive effect on a much larger segment of the population. If these conclusions are correct, it would appear that an increase would be painful to a number of people while bringing joy to a much larger number. To say this is a valuable exchange is in no way intended to ignore the pain of the smaller group, but rather an attempt to be realistic.
Some employers have pointed out, in contrast to the supposed loss of jobs, that businesses generally hire and keep as many employees as the functions of their businesses and the demand for their goods or services require. The wage floor required by law, according to these folks, is rarely the determining factor in hiring or retaining employees.
Some who bitterly oppose a minimum wage increase suggest instead that the government make the now-underpaid employees whole by giving them tax breaks or other financial boosts, on an individual basis. Uh isn't this a form of welfare? I thought you folks were opposed to handouts for the poor, who are obviously too slack to earn a decent wage. (Note: Sarcasm.) The suggestion of individual welfare payments instead of a minimum wage increase is dangerously close to the ludicrous suggestion of some that, if these folks can't get by with the current minimum wage, they should get a better paying job. Anyone who is so dense as to make such a suggestion is obviously not capable of understanding any comments I might make on the subject, so I won't waste my time.
For all those who oppose raising the wage, whatever their reasons, my question is, OK, then what? Do we continue to let more people fall into the pit?
If you had been around and in control when I was swinging that sledge hammer for the 75 cents an hour minimum wage, and if you'd had your way, today's lowest level employees would be trying to get by on $30.00 a week, less withholdings. Is that a solution worthy of this country?
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."