Giving Workers Their Due

By Buell, John | The Humanist, July 1999 | Go to article overview
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Giving Workers Their Due

Buell, John, The Humanist

Recent debate in Washington, D.C., and in many cities and states across the United States on proposals to raise the minimum wage suggests an obvious question: why, in the midst of a so-called unprecedented boom, do we need an increase? Two major trends within our political economy bring this issue to the fore.

The boom itself is unprecedented in its parsimony toward the typical worker. Even as late as 1997--five years into this economic expansion--median wages were thirty-three cents an hour less than in 1989. Only in the last eighteen months have working-class wages started even a modest move upward. Here in my home state of Maine, with nearly 30 percent of workers at or below poverty-level wages, slow wage growth in the midst of an economic expansion presents a severe challenge.

That challenge has been exacerbated by a second trend: the push to get welfare recipients off assistance and into paying work. However, since most of the poor work--contrary to the popular stereotype--the elimination or reduction of their benefits makes it imperative that jobs pay a living wage.

The recent minimum-wage debate is symbolic of an underlying crisis. The job market that now must increasingly sustain our citizens leaves a startling number in poverty, and government is ever less willing to pick up the slack. Even in an economic expansion, our private welfare system, including especially food pantries, are stretched to the breaking point.

Would a higher minimum wage improve this plight? Some large considerations ought to frame this debate.

The small business community has long maintained that increasing the cost of labor always reduces the demand for it. Maine's Independent governor, Angus King, recently speculated that a hypothetical firm hiring twenty workers might have to lay off three if wage standards rose. He implies that this is simple supply and demand and that interfering with the magic of the market is always counterproductive.

These conservatives, especially small-business leaders, should devote as much time to economic history as to the abstractions of market theory. University of Massachusetts economist Robert Pollin points out that the era of small government (1875-1941)--when unions were repressed and wage and hour legislation was generally voided by the courts--saw higher levels not only of unemployment but of business failure than the classic era of big government. There is good reason to suspect--contrary to conventional business wisdom--that trickle-up economics works better than trickle-down.

Keeping wage growth strong, through both unions and rising minimum-wage standards, is more than simply a moral imperative. Conservatives consistently forget that wages are not only a cost to business but are also about two-thirds of all the dollars spent on consumer products. The current federal minimum wage of $5.25 is still about a third less in real terms than two decades ago, and productivity gains have been substantial in these years.

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