Imagine you make $7.50 an hour. Imagine your work week is limited so that your employer does not have to share responsibility for your healthcare costs or provide other benefits. Imagine your having to take a second job where you are also paid $7.50 an hour and work less than 30 hours a week. Let’s say you are fortunate enough to work 60 hours total and make, roughly, $440 a week. Well, that’s close to $2,000 a month. Why, that’s almost $25,000 a year. Who couldn’t live off of whatever that ends up being after taxes? Who couldn’t be a single head of household raising and providing for a family? People have to do it everyday.
As an increase in the federal minimum wage is considered or hotly debated, the lack of empathy for those surviving on less and less becomes horrifyingly apparent. Have you considered how you and your family would survive on a minimum wage? Which would mean your being fortunate enough to find even a minimum wage job in the current economy. Have you taken the time to consider those folks who do survive on the minimum wage? Do you care?
Just as with those living on some form of federal assistance, we have done a good job of demonizing low-income laborers in this country, which probably goes a long way in helping us all sleep better at night. It is also why businesses are eager to support some form of immigration reform. Immigrants are happy to work for more than they could ever receive in their own countries. And we need people who want to work. Of course, they — like us — want higher wages. Who doesn’t?
There must be a justifiable answer for why there are those willing to work for less. If not, they would find a higher paying job. Right?
You hear it repeatedly, “if folks want a better job, they should just go find one,” or “just go out and get themselves a better education.”
Wages have stagnated for the vast majority of Americans, but particularly low-income laborers, since the 1980s. Our dollars purchase much less these days. Todays minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is 25 percent below the inflation adjusted value of wages in 1970, but slightly higher than adjusted value of wages in 2008 which is a small sign that things may, just may, be getting better. If our economy is improving ever so gradually, do we really want to risk increasing the minimum wage now?
Low wages are bad for business and bad for our economy overall, regardless of our inflated stock market. Concerns about the general welfare of our labor force are legitimate, so several states and many communities around the country have sought to raise minimum wages for employees. Boston is poised to raise its minimum wage to $11 per hour over the next three years. New York City and state are exploring an increase. State legislatures in Maryland, Hawaii, Vermont, West Virginia and Minnesota have passed increases as high as $10 an hour.
It is not easy to figure out the problem with such significant hikes. If the minimum wage is increased it could crush many of our small mom and pop shops and make it even harder for medium-sized companies to do business. Some argue that a forced raise in the minimum wage would only end up increasing the economic power of larger corporate entities and thus push even more wealth to the (equally demonized) top one percent. There is no question that the highly profitable, larger companies will be in a much better position to handle the cost increases and adjust accordingly thereby strengthening their hold on the markets in which they operate.
That’s why the time is now to get busy and creative in Mississippi when it comes to building a better and more productive work force. What little manufacturing we have in Mississippi, coupled with our critically-important agricultural production is competing against business interests operating in central America and Asia that pay their workforce much, much less. Those foreign companies also deal with little or no government regulation, oversight, and taxes. If you speak with most business owners in Mississippi you will find that they do appreciate their employees and want to keep them working. They understand that a viable working wage is the best way to ensure productivity and a sense of purpose for all involved.
We can applaud the success of those more prosperous communities around the country and more progressive-minded states demanding a minimum-wage hike for workers. It would be wonderful if we raised the minimum wage to $10 or even $15 an hour here in Mississippi to give our labor force a fighting chance in today’s economy and to encourage people to get back to work and off of whatever form of assistance they may be receiving.
Could our communities and even our state do the same at some point? Are any of our economic leaders thinking about and maybe even offering options other than just digging in our heels, hoping to fight off any form of wage increase? In Boston they are hoping to lower costs for businesses through reforming their unemployment insurance system. Other state legislatures around the country are also working creatively with cities and communities to set standards. These experiments are needed quickly, before a minimum wage hike is likely mandated by the Feds. We must be proactive in exploring how such an increase might benefit labor, business and ultimately build a better Mississippi.
» David Dallas is a political writer. He worked for former U.S. Sen. John Stennis and authored Barking Dawgs and A Gentleman from Mississippi.