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Higher minimum wage not the answer, but training is | EDITOR'S NOTE
Back in my salad days (college), I played bass guitar in a relatively big East Coast punk rock band. We released a handful of records, toured the eastern half of the country a couple of times and then self-destructed and went our separate ways just as it was about to happen for us.
Common story, I know.
But this Christmas, the impending closure of a beloved rock club in Albany, N.Y., and an off-handed statement about coming home to see a tribute show led to an unlikely reunion of the band.
Despite my living in the Seattle area, one guy still in Albany and two living on the Brooklyn end of Long Island, it somehow all came together and after a single three-hour practice the day of the show, the four of us took to the stage for a sold-out, hour-long nostalgia trip that quickly became one of the greatest, most fun nights of my life.
Revisiting songs that we wrote in our early 20s was a lot of fun and in many ways served to remind each of us how we have grown and changed, and how we didn’t.
In light of recent events, the single lyric that struck me the most as we prepped for this show came from our song “McDonald’s: We Own You.” The song is basically a rant against the service economy that we and so many of our punk friends found ourselves relegated to.
The chorus is a simple call-and-answer that goes “minimum wage, minimum wage, minimum wage: SLAVERY!” and the rest of the lyrics focus on how difficult it is to live on that money, as well as to really care about what you do when you are literally being paid the least possible.
As Chris Rock says, minimum wage means “If we could pay you less, we would.”
There’s a line in the song, written in New York in 1999, that goes “Do you think I give a (notfriendlyforafamilynewspaper) for $4.75?”
Think about that amount: $4.75. That was minimum wage in New York just 15 years ago. As of Jan. 1, it is $8 per hour, though people who make tips, such as servers, are paid MUCH less (like, $3 an hour) as the tips get factored in to their salary.
These days, the big debate in our area is about a $15 minimum wage. The president, in his State of the Union this year, also declared his intentions to try and raise the federal minimum to $10.10.
In Washington, we have the highest minimum wage in the country, at $9.32 an hour. Also, there are no loopholes. Whether you make tips or not, the lowest amount you can be paid in this state is $9.32.
But given the president’s amount – $10.10 – I was again struck by the $15 amount that seems to have arbitrarily become the goal in this part of the state.
The more I think about the issue, the less likely I am to support a minimum wage as high as being pushed in Seattle. I certainly think an increase in the federal and state level is necessary, but an increase of more than 60 percent seems ludicrous to me.
I am, generally speaking, not a conservative and I certainly feel for the folks struggling to get by on minimum wage; but I can’t help but think that simply raising the minimum wage is a feel-good Band-Aid that does nothing to address the actual problem.
Because as I see it, the problem is not that the people working minimum-wage jobs aren’t making enough to support their families (though that is a problem, just not THE problem), it’s that they apparently lack the skills to get out of a minimum-wage job.
Because no matter where you set the minimum wage, it will ALWAYS be the bottom. We may raise the poverty line a little, but we are still keeping these people at the poverty line.
It is pouring more oil in the car instead of fixing the hole in the engine.
Let me tell you a story about a friend of mine as an example of what I mean. This friend has a college degree, but it’s in a completely useless field (theater). I am not judging his choice of major. Study what you want to study. That’s what college is for.
But post-college, this friend was having a difficult time getting a Real World Job because he just didn’t have the marketable skills necessary to do so.
Because of that, he ended up taking pictures of tourists riding the Ducks in Seattle. It did not pay well and it was not satisfying. It was, however, work.
Recognizing that he didn’t have the skills to advance, my friend made the decision to go back to school and get said skills. And he didn’t go to the UW or some other high-priced school with a fancy football team and stylish sweatshirt logo. He saved his money and went to DeVry, where this year he completed his degree in multimedia design and development.
Within two months of getting his degree, my friend got a new job, a good job, one that pays WAY more than mine.
He now has a career. Until he got those skills, he had a job. And no matter how high the minimum wage was raised, it would still be a minimum-wage job.
That’s what I think the solution should be: training. The problem is not that a bad job pays bad wages, it’s that people are trying to make careers out of said bad jobs with bad wages.
And like I said, I am not necessarily a conservative. I absolutely believe something needs to be done and that government can be used to help. I would even support an increase in taxes to pay for skills classes to help those stuck in a dead-end gig.
But simply giving someone more fish is a short-term response. Teaching them to fish is an actual solution.
On top of that, if the guy at a fast-food restaurant is now making $15 an hour, you can bet that every other job in the state is going to see an increase as well. (I worked very hard to get a certain level above minimum wage and I would expect to stay there, which means I, too, would deserve a 60 percent raise, as would everyone, really. Rising tide and all that …)
Then there’s the issue of inflation. The more money put into circulation, the less value that money has. Prices will go up. On everything. That’s just what happens.
And in five years, we will once again have this exact same discussion about what to do about people who only make minimum wage. Because, again, there will ALWAYS be a minimum wage and it will ALWAYS be the bottom of the economic barrel.
That’s just an economic fact. The same products that today are able to be purchased for $9.32 will cost $15. That’s literally how inflation works.
So again, to me the problem is not that these bottom-of-the-barrel jobs don’t pay enough (and I have worked minimum-wage jobs, both as a teenager and fresh out of the band before I could get work in my career field). The problem is that people are trying to raise a family on said jobs.
And I feel for those people and I am willing to support whatever government programs are necessary to help them through tough times. But until we teach job skills, no amount of money is going to really change anything.
And that doesn’t address what this would mean for a business’s bottom line. Honestly, I don’t really care. I just think that if we’re going to try and address a problem with public policy, it should actually address the problem.
I’d like to think my 20-year-old punk rock self would agree. Even if he’d probably also give me grief for these shoes while he did it ...