If your lunch plans Thursday include heading to a drive-through, you might plan on brown bagging it instead. Fast food workers in 35 cities across the nation are calling for a walkout in support of raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, and if you don’t want to risk getting a meatless hamburger, courtesy of an overworked and harried manager, bypass the local burger joint.
According some surveys, nearly three-in-four Americans favor raising the minimum wage. That may be an exaggeration, but such proposals are usually popular, even though Americans differ on the amount. In his most recent State of the Union address President Barack Obama suggested $9 for the federal rate. More than one bill introduced in Congress insists on $10, or $10.10. The strike rate of $15 might strike most people as a little high—on the other hand, maybe not, as proposals inch their way up and never down.
Could the proverbial family of four get by on $15 per hour? Maybe, depending on where they live, how they live, what other monies are coming in, what kind of support systems are available, and what kind of special needs they have. Almost nothing is more variable than a household budget, and to speak of a nationwide “living wage” is almost meaningless. Another problem with minimum wage is that it tends to tighten the job market, forcing employers to cut back on hours and personnel in order to make a profit, or even stay in business. (With all the talk about what constitutes a living wage, why no corresponding banter about a decent profit?)
Behind every argument for minimum wage are at least two false assumptions: 1) Employers can always afford to pay more; they just don’t want to, and 2) The value of any business lies in its employees, and thus they should be paid what they are “worth.” Proposition 1 summons a picture of the greedy, corporation VP in his Mercedes, zooming by the city bus stop where the Wendy’s fry-cook slumps waiting to catch a ride to work. But, of course, it’s more complicated than that: Even though Walmart and McDonald’s make lots of money, their profit margin is razor-slim: anywhere from 3 to 6 percent. Grocery stores operate on a similar ledge. Between the meat-flipper and the mogul stand an army of managers, distributors, and suppliers who need to make their own living wage. And what of the employer who owns a local coffee shop with seven employees, including his mother?
Speaking of worth, who decides? This guy tells of how he worked his way up from minimum wage to a higher position, only to see his salary drop so the employer could satisfy new wage requirements. His pay did not reflect the increased value of his skills, and who would call that fair? In God’s eyes, human worth is infinite, but in the economic world, if the market doesn’t set the value, the government will, and it won’t necessarily be pretty.