Of all of the policy agendas associated with Bernie Sanders, a $15 minimum wage is one of the most likely to be feasible in the short term. Whether one uses metrics of productivity, an honest inflation metric not distorted by the government’s low-balling of the Consumer Price Index to keep down entitlement spending by pretending that the cost of living is lower than it actually is, or anything else, the minimum wage now is massively low and hasn’t kept up with any kind of cost of living increase over time. That predictably means that people are working more hours, going into debt, or cutting their expenses just to try to get by. While some believe that the minimum wage has no reason to track productivity, most of the rest of us point out that not only does it seem like a basic measure of justice that people share equally in the gains of society but in any instance that the inequality and poverty that we are seeing in the U.S. should be rectified and raising the minimum wage by a reasonable metric would help to improve the wage base and lower inequality.
In response to this, we hear from the right wing that, well, the minimum wage shouldn’t be a living wage. It should be a stepping stool to better things. Even though this argument is venal stupidity, it should be engaged with in order to demonstrate how hollow the position is and how much the argument is just yet another means for men like Stuart Varney to spit on the poor.
Let’s put aside the moral absurdity that someone should be able to work eight hours a day for five days of the week, not counting time for transportation and preparation, and still be unable to provide for themselves, let alone two such workers being unable to provide for themselves and even one child. Let’s put aside the clear logic that no social contract that allows people to suffer mightily and yet barely survive can be just, given that it is not better than the rights that one has in nature to give up. Let’s ignore that those who are homeless in our society, itself an injustice, can work as many jobs as they can find and still not be meaningfully able to find shelter in a timely manner. Let’s ignore that requiring people to live like monks, bereft of any additional income to be able to afford entertainment, is brutal, unrealistic and hypocritical coming from those who don’t have to endure such a life. And let’s ignore that one need not only survive in the short term but also save for retirement in a society that hasn’t made its retirement program (Social Security) remotely sufficient for most individuals to easily survive.
Let’s even ignore that the original logic of the minimum wage was indeed that it would be a living wage, such that Franklin Delano Roosevelt made clear that “No business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country.”
Let’s grant, for the sake of momentary argument that perhaps the minimum wage should not in and of itself be a living wage but should be a springboard for people to advance up the ladder.
Then the minimum wage has to at least be high enough to facilitate efforts to advance one’s position. By this conservative logic, people must be unable to make so little that they in fact can’t advance beyond the lowest level job in a meaningful way.
That means that the minimum wage has to be high enough for someone to be able to at least feed themselves and shelter themselves, and with another breadwinner also provide for at least a single child. (I’m granting here to conservatives that a minimum wage worker should not be able to be a single parent as well, again just for the sake of argument, despite the fact that this way of thinking will always tend to lock in not only the nuclear family but also male dominance and supremacy given that men will be more likely to make more of the money and even a full-time working woman won’t be guaranteed to be able to provide for her child alone).
The minimum wage in this case would also have to be high enough that, combined with public subsidies and subsidized loans for education, a person could meaningfully afford to work and be going to school. After all, how is someone going to be able to move up the ladder without at least an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, let alone graduate degrees, in many fields? At the very least, someone on minimum wage would have to be able to pursue a professional certification within their time and budget.
It would have to be high enough that, when combined with ubiquitous health insurance, a normal worker would never have a fear that a normal illness could prevent them from paying rent. Remember that, even if a particular checkup and even the medication were free, a person who’s sick will still need to take time off of work and forfeit wages as a result. That means that the minimum wage has to be high enough that a person spending responsibly would have enough savings to endure a few days off of work.
It would have to be high enough that a person would not need to be working multiple jobs, therefore stressing themselves and working themselves to the proverbial and sometimes literal bone, in order to survive. If this becomes routinely necessary, then people will be too unhealthy, too overworked and too stressed to effectively look for work or pursue an education.
In fact, the minimum wage would need to facilitate savings so that a person could afford to have a rainy day fund to repair a car, move to pursue a new job, or take advantage of an investment opportunity or start a business.
In short, the minimum wage would, even by common conservative logic that it’s supposed to be the starting point and not the end point, need to be sufficient to allow people to actually move past that starting point. It simply isn’t. No sensible person could plausibly allege that the present minimum wage comes even close to being able to survive even minimally enough to compete in the marketplace. As always, conservative logic is fractally inconsistent, a series of rationalizations to defend terrible behavior because that happens to be the status quo.
The minimum wage isn’t just something that occurs in isolation. If the social safety net is cut in other ways, such that tuition, transportation, health care, and other costs are privatized, it’s simply smashing the poor to keep a low minimum wage. The minimum wage hasn’t just failed to keep up with productivity: we’ve also seen a wealth transfer from the poor to the rich. If the conservative agenda to cut government in these areas succeeds, then the minimum wage must be yet higher to realistically allow people to be able to take care of themselves while they build their skills and connections to climb up the ladder.
Of course, collectively, most of us do not want a society as unequal as we at present are saddled with. We want a society where people can relax, grow and spend time with their families. Putting constant effort to scrabble through a race should be an option : it should not be a requirement, mandated by social institutions. Though those with wealth and power may call forcing everyone in a society to battle constantly to survive “liberty”, we should always remember that it’s in fact a terrible tyranny.
This article was written by Frederic Christie, a writer for dusk magazine.