Just a few days ago the House of Representatives passed a bill increasing the federal minimum wage to $7.25 an hour over the next three years. The bill is rather controversial, including both the minimum wage increase and big reductions in the estate tax.
While I listened to the radio report on the bill, I was reminded of a discussion I had some time ago with “Jed.” We were discussing politics/economics, and I had mentioned the frustration I felt at the meager compensation so many in our communities receive for their work. Jed scoffed.
“It is what they are willing to accept,” Jed asserted. “If they don’t like it, they can get something different. They can go to school and get the training to increase their earning power.”
I was rather disturbed by Jed’s response. I am an enthusiastic advocate of higher education—not merely because of the potentially improved earning power, but for Jeffersonian reasons; higher education helps individuals learn to think critically, to communicate, and to understand the world around them. But Jed was not extolling the virtues of higher education. The implication was that low-income wage earners deserved nothing more based upon their choices. This attitude simply does not reflect the subtleties of the situation or the principles of a moral, “Christian” society.
It is worth noting that the more recent generations are finding it a greater and greater challenge to pay for college. The combination of the stagnation of wages (adjusted for inflation), skyrocketing cost of college, and reduction in grants in favor of loans have all created a more precarious situation for graduates than in years past. The average student graduates with an unprecedented $19,000 in student loan debt, takes longer than four years to complete their degree, and sees lower adjusted earnings than previous generations. A daunting prospect indeed for many student (See NPR’s On Point: “Can America Afford Going to College?”, Anya Kamenetz’s Generation Debt, and Tamara Draut’s Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30-Something Can’t Get Ahead). Do we really want our upcoming workforce to be in such a precarious financial circumstances?
Nor is the degree which those students pursue guarantee employment or financial security. Jed was suggesting that by simply getting a degree in a high-compensation field (and assuming they are dutiful workers), they would be virtually assured financial security. This suggestion does not withstand basic scrutiny. Not all college programs can claim to lead to well-paying and highly secure careers. Many students are not inclined by talent or interest to enter those financially profitable programs. Nor are those programs equipped to accept everyone if all the students were so inclined. And a glut of trained candidates for a particular field would not mean high rewards for everyone; the demand would remain relatively fixed, leaving the bulk of candidates to find work in fields for which they may be poorly equipped and in which they are not so well rewarded. In fact, in according to the principles of supply and demand, the influx of applicants into a relatively fixed job market could drive down salaries, hurting even the “winners” in the competition for work.
But this isn’t really about the educational system. Nor is it about promoting the minimum wage. I’m aware of and willing to discuss the possible negative consequences and the demographic realities of the minimum wage—though studies by the Fiscal Policy Institute, Economic Policy Institute, and The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities all indicate that those consequences are far less grave than opponents suggest; and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, teenager (presumably dependents upon their families) are a minority within the minimum wage labor force—meaning a majority of minimum-wage earners most likely are working to provide for themselves and possibly families.
No, the real issue is the way we value the working class and working poor in our society.
No matter how advanced our society, economy, and technology becomes, there will always be a need for janitors, garbage collectors, groundskeepers, maids, agricultural workers, factory workers, fast-food workers, etc. And no matter how advanced our educational system, we will always have people who, due to circumstances such as disability, past history, or just plain inclination, are best suited for that sort of work, or unable to obtain anything “better.” Since they will always be here—and we will always need them, we should not devalue those people or the work which they do simply because those jobs may not require glamorous skills.
A bishop once told me that “There is dignity in all work.” I believe there is truth to this. I have found satisfaction in working in a warehouse, doing routine janitorial/cleaning work, or operating a factory machine, just as I have working at the library or doing design work. I have a friend who finds great personal fulfillment in his lawncare job. One of the maintenance staff at the Library has confided in me that she feels gratified to help make that important community resource clean and comfortable for the public.
If we truly believe that bishop’s precept, should it not follow that all work deserves a dignified wage, one on which these good people can live a dignified (if modest) life? In a moral, “Christian,” civilized society, shouldn’t we strive to ensure that all heads of households are able to support their families with some measure of security, regardless of their educational or skill level? Don’t we believe that these providers should be able to have the peace of mind which comes from knowing that they can cope financially with an emergency which might grip their families? Don’t we want them to be able to make enough that they can spend time raising their families and strengthening relationships instead of desperately working multiple jobs to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads? Don’t we want them to have the time to spend in the community, performing church service, and growing as people? Should we not value them as important and valuable human beings, irrespective of their career path?
I find it a sad commentary on our Christian compassion and our belief in the family values about which we talk ad nauseum that we would simply write off the working poor as deserving and justifiable losers in our economy and society.