Monday I said the growing force behind efforts to raise the minimum wage is born of a recognition that our economy and society are out of balance. People have a gut-level desire for fairness, and ours has been triggered by multiple examples of gross unfairness.
Most people recognize it’s time to raise wages at the bottom, but what hasn’t changed is a strong tendency to grade people based on their status in life, especially their economic status.
Surveys show most Americans support an increase in the minimum wage to $9 an hour. A November Gallup poll found 76 percent support an increase of that size, up from 71 percent in March. Support ranged from 91 percent among Democrats to 76 percent for independents to 58 percent for Republicans.
Washington’s minimum will rise to $9.32 an hour in January, and there is movement around the country to raise the bottom much higher. Wednesday, President Obama called on Congress to raise the national minimum wage from $7.25 an hour, saying the growing income gap is a “defining issue of our time.”
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But public support falls as people are asked about higher minimums — SeaTac’s $15 minimum barely passed.
For some people I heard from this week, a higher increase feels like taking money from hardworking entrepreneurs and giving it to workers who barely contribute, are unskilled and unwilling to do what it takes to improve their lives. It’s as if they’d be getting an undeserved windfall, and that, of course, would not be fair.
If you take inflation into account, the minimum wage would have to rise to just over $10 to match the $1.60 minimum in 1968, which of course, means minimum-wage workers in most of the country are earning less for the same jobs than in 1968.
Sales clerks, cashiers and fast-food workers make up the bulk of people who would benefit from an increase in the minimum wage. Some people in their comments suggest that if they’d really wanted to, low-wage workers could have been surgeons or college-football coaches, or that they are so lacking that they couldn’t do better and are not worth better pay.
I thought maybe I should find that perfect person as an example of who would benefit from a wage increase — you know, the McDonald’s worker with a college degree, who can’t find a job in her field (because she was injured saving a neighbor’s child from a speeding car), and who has a second job at a grocery store and spends her time off tending to her ill grandmother and volunteering at her church, the Rosa Parks of the better-pay movement, someone above reproach, because the person who benefits should be like you and me, perfect.
The truth is some wonderful people who’ve been dealt a bad hand will benefit, and some jerks will, too. There’s a spectrum of people working in low-wage jobs, just as in higher-paying jobs. Don’t tell me you’ve never met someone who pulls down a big salary who made you shake your head about the way the world works.
The need for better pay is absolutely about individual workers, but it is more about what kind of society we want. If people who put in a day’s work still need public assistance, something is wrong, and that something goes beyond the individual.
The Alliance for a Just Society, a Seattle-based national nonprofit, released its annual job-gap report this week. In 2012, it found, there were seven applicants for every job that pays above $15. That leaves a lot of people either unemployed or settling for jobs that don’t pay the bills.
Since the recession, it has become harder to get jobs that pay more than $15 an hour; low-paying jobs have grown as a percentage of all jobs. We have to change that or settle for a country of rich and poor with a small middle class and fewer opportunities for upward mobility.
Countries that look like that don’t make good democracies. Better wages at the bottom will benefit all of us by helping to stem that kind of decline.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org