In Support of a Livable Wage

In an ideal world, there would no need for laws such as those mandating minimum wage, or a host of similar examples of governmental interference in our lives.

There is a long list of very valid reasons why minimum wage rules are undemocratic and, according to some, even counterproductive.

In a utopian society, employers would recognize the fact that it would be unconscionable and immoral for them to pay their workers anything less than a “living wage.” They would recognize that it is their responsibility as human beings to ensure that all those they employ earn enough to support their families and pay for basic staples such as food, clothing and shelter.

In such a scenario, government would never have to mix in to what essentially should not be any of their business. But sadly, much of the business world has proven itself to be totally heartless. Were wages set solely via a natural system of supply and demand, too many companies would pay their workers so little that the amount of homelessness would skyrocket and we would see a massive epidemic of malnutrition.

Chazal (Avos 3:2) teach us: “Pray for the welfare of the government, because if people didn’t fear it, a person would swallow his fellow alive.” In essence, the primary purpose of government is to prevent individuals from mistreating and destroying each other. Therefore, until it becomes politically correct for business owners to treat all their employees with the basic respect and dignity they deserve as human beings, there is no viable alternative than to have a government-enforced minimum wage.

While various studies by competing groups have produced widely differing conclusions, it is likely that a minimum wage doesn’t only keep people fed and clothed; it also helps keep crime down.

Most people — especially the young — don’t go to work in order to fight off boredom (though this is a very valid reason in itself). Individuals enter the workforce because they want to earn a living. When they find that after eight hours of tedious, sometimes even backbreaking work, they still aren’t making enough money to pay for their most basic expenses, they lose the incentive to make an honest living and therefore turn to working “off the books,” or even turn to petty larceny, to supplement their income.

According to the Center for American Progress, “Decades of research have demonstrated that there is a statistically significant link between low wages, income inequality and crime.” This think  tank argues that researchers have found that the majority of increases in violent crime can be explained by downward wage trends, and the National Bureau of Economic Research reports that a 20 percent drop in wages leads to a 12-to-18 percent increase in youth crime.

Many people mistakenly think that the average fast-food worker is a 17-year-old kid straight out of high school, who is still living at home with his parents and using his earnings to supplement his allowance.

In reality, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average age of these workers is 29 years old; for women, it’s 32. The restaurant association says its own analysis of Census data found that slightly more than 25 percent of fast-food workers are heads of households.

In July, more than 100 economists signed a petition supporting a bill sponsored by a Florida congressman that would hike the minimum wage from the current $7.25 to $10.50 an hour.

The petition signed by the economists says that for decades, research has “found that no significant effects on employment opportunities result when the minimum wage rises in reasonable increments.” The economists also note that minimum-wage workers employed full time for the entire year earn $15,080, almost 20 percent below the poverty level for a family of three.

A recent Associated Press report told the story of Terrance Wise, who was among a few thousand fast-food workers in seven cities, including New York, Chicago and Detroit, who took to the streets last week calling for the minimum wage to be raised to $15.00 an hour.

Wise holds two jobs in Kansas City, but he says his paychecks aren’t enough to buy shoes for his three daughters and insure his 15-year-old car.

“We work hard for companies that are making millions,” the 34-year-old says, adding that he lost his home last year, unable to make mortgage payments despite working 50-hour weeks at two fast-food establishments. “We’re not asking for the world. We want to make enough to make a decent living. We deserve better. If they respect us and pay us and treat us right, it’ll lift up the whole economy.”

Wise is right, and he deserves our sympathy and support.