“Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.” — Margaret J. Wheatley
We need a guaranteed living wage in the United States. That’s not all we need, though. Just raising the minimum wage could have disastrous consequences.
The federal minimum wage hasn’t been raised since 2009, when it rose from $6.55 to $7.25 per hour. This was the last of a three step increase that the US Congress had approved in 2007. Prior to that, the minimum wage had been stuck at $5.15 per hour for 10 years. Check your calendars, and you’ll see that as I write this post, it’s been 10 years since that last increase.
In the meantime, inflation and the cost of living have gone up. It’s not possible in the urban areas of the country to live on minimum wage, and even in the less populated regions with lower costs of living it’s barely feasible. The old white men in Washington DC like to romanticize minimum wage jobs as the part-time work of teenagers, but that’s becoming less and less the case as families struggle to make ends meet with low-wage jobs, the best they can find.
Not too long ago my son and I went to the local McDonalds where we live. I rarely go there, and was surprised to find that it had been completely remodeled, and offers ordering kiosks with touch screens that accept card payments. There’s still a cashier available if you need one, but it’s somehow more convenient to order for yourself, pay, then sit down and wait for the food to be delivered. It’s also cheaper for the McDonalds franchise, as I noticed far fewer people working than ever before, and it was a busy Friday evening.
The naysayers are right when they point out that an increase in the minimum wage will push companies into more automation and fewer workers. Even companies that could afford to pay more will balk, because it cuts into their bottom line. Additionally, smaller companies that aren’t part of a major corporation, including what are commonly referred to as ‘mom and pop’ stores, will feel the pinch. This is especially the case in places like the rural Midwest, where I grew up. $15 an hour is quite a bit for minimum wage there, and yet this is what is being bandied about as the proposed new minimum.
That said, I still believe that $15 should be the new federal minimum. However, I also think that it’s simply reality that with or without the increase, we’re going to see considerably more automation in business in the years ahead. The wage increase will simply speed up the pace of change. If this country were able to be intelligent about legislation — something that I’ve come to doubt — the same legislation would also fund job retraining and boost grants for people going to college or vocational schools. In reality, the best thing we could have would be federally-funded college (free for admitted students, eliminating the need for most student loans at the baccalaureate level) together with universal healthcare, and a wage increase.
This being the United States of America, I don’t have a great deal of hope that the right thing will be done any time soon. Just more lines drawn and polarization of hate on left and right. Then again, who knows? Maybe a majority will get sick of the nonsense and we’ll get our act together.