LAKE MACBRIDE— The talk of raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, as President Obama suggested in his state of the union address, is from another country. He means well, but at $10.10 per hour, a life is hardly sustainable, even with overtime. What would better serve low wage workers is lifting the entire economy, combined with reducing regulations that hinder the efforts of small scale entrepreneurs. Where I live, the future is not about wage rates as much as it is about putting together a life that may include a job or jobs, but is not dependent upon them. Sustainability will be about creating local answers to the question, how shall we live?
The current discussion about wages is not really about sustainability. It is about boosting income for lowly paid workers. There are arguments that posit a relationship between increasing the minimum wage and reducing poverty. If increasing the minimum wage is an anti-poverty program, then I’m all for it. Especially if we agree that the action would not address the overall struggle people have to exit working poor status. Unless our elected officials index any potential increase in minimum wages to a formula that tracks buying power, all that will have been accomplished by raising the minimum wage is to throw the working poor a bone for today’s soup pot.
When I was a child I asked my father if we were poor. He said being poor was an attitude, and he did not consider our family to be poor. As I wrote elsewhere, “I had a normal city childhood among people who never had much money, but had a well defined culture centered on family, work and church.” It’s the presumptions about how today’s culture is defined with regard to the minimum wage that drive me mad.
Robert Reich has written that wages should track the economy. He said, if people have money to buy things, the economy does better. Government plays a role in stimulating the economy by making monetary payments to individuals through social programs, giving them more money to spend. Yet, most people I know don’t look at living with the same macroeconomic view Reich espouses, and are not fans of consumerism. Everyone wants to be a global strategist, but few want to apply equal skill and energy to improving life on a more granular level.
The analysis local people use, one that starts spending the new money that an increase in minimum wages would generate on education, training and the like, is ridiculous. People who are working poor, or living from paycheck to paycheck, already know how they will spend any extra money that comes into a household budget. The annual five or six thousand dollars we are talking about, in many cases, has already been spent on loans, medical bills, using credit cards, and incurring other forms of debt that are part of how people make cash flow without adequate income. To say that a $2.85 per hour increase in minimum wages would enable the working poor to exit poverty and join the middle class reflects a basic lack of understanding of the situation.
Advocating for an increase in the minimum wage is okay for those who are financially established, but it is a middle class progressive perquisite. Where I have trouble with it is in differentiating myself from the rest of the people on the planet as someone who is better than anyone else. I don’t do everything I would in the community; I wish I could do more. I also believe someone has to be working on a granular level to find a sustainable, replicable answer to the question, how shall we live? There is not much pay in doing that.