Can You Pay My Bills: Who “Deserves” $15/Hour?

fast food workers striking for wage increase

IN JULY, New York’s Wage Board endorsed raising the minimum wage to $15/hour for fast-food workers in New York State by 2021, a move that makes it possible for State Labor Commissioner Mario J. Musolino to make it official.

This marks a likely victory for fast-food workers across the country, who began organizing over the past few years under various names, including “Fight for 15” and “Fast Food Forward.” It also marks a resurgence of popular debate over whether such a raise should take place. This post will address the moralistic arguments against it.

Argument: Workers in jobs that require little skill and education don’t deserve $15 an hour.

Many people, myself included, would agree that people who invest heavily in training and education should be compensated at a higher rate than those who don’t. However, how many would say that people in jobs that don’t require much skill or education don’t deserve to make enough to survive off?

Let’s start by looking at the demographics of the fast-food workforce. According to a survey by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), about 70% of fast food workers are 20 and older. Bloomberg reports that a quarter are raising children. Sure, fast food workers aren’t dropping dead from their low wages, but a bit over half require one or more public assistance programs like food stamps and Medicaid to get by.

What is a living wage? The answer depends on a number of factors, including where one lives and how many individuals one is supporting. MIT’s living wage calculator provides detailed information for different counties throughout the United States and makes it clear that nowhere is the current federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour sufficient for a person working full-time to support him- or herself. A quick perusal of MIT’s select cities graphic shows a living wage range of $8.22 in Boise, Idaho to $12.83 in San Francisco for one adult. Their more detailed county breakdown shows that adding one child to the mix at least doubles the hourly amount needed to live off.

If we can agree that everyone with a job, regardless of what that job is, deserves enough compensation to live off, then $7.25 is not enough. Still, $15 may seem a bit high. Salvatore Babones, associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, puts that number into context, and says the minimum wage today should actually be a bit higher. In 1969, the minimum wage was at peak purchasing power at $1.60 – $10.24 today, adjusted for inflation. If the minimum wage had grown in step with overall national economic growth, though, it would be around $17.73 today. He argues that, as standards of living increase, as worker productivity increases, and as the national economy grows, we should not be basing our minimum wage off old poverty level standards by simply adjusting the minimum wage for inflation.

The idea that $15/hour is an outrageous compensation rate is based on what we’re accustomed to, which is far too low.

Argument: People can lift themselves up by working hard and getting an education.

A lot of the rhetoric against a $15 minimum wage for fast-food workers centers on the idea that such jobs should be a stop along the way, not a career, and that people can lift themselves up by working hard and getting an education.

One of the problems with this rhetoric is that it fails to account for the fact that there are simply more low-wage jobs than medium- or high-wage jobs available. Last year, a report by the National Employment Law Project found that high-wage industries were still down one million jobs from the recession, whereas low-wage industries are up 1.8 million positions (the fast-food industry in particular is booming). The CEPR survey mentioned above found that about 85% of adults employed in the fast-food industry have at least a high school diploma, and about 31% had some college education. Taking into account the high costs of college and the fact that in recent years more than a third of college graduates have been employed in low-wage, non-degree-requiring jobs, the “lift yourself up” line of thinking fails to reflect a more complicated economic reality in which elbow grease doesn’t guarantee a higher pay check.

Argument: People in professions that require more skill, education, and/or risk shouldn’t make less than burger flippers.

One of the most common moralistic arguments I encounter against the $15 minimum wage for fast-food workers is that many nurses, home health aides, paramedics, farm workers, and others make less than that. This argument resonated with me at first, but it misses the point. The fast-food workers who have organized aren’t saying they deserve more than people employed in these other fields. But fast-food is the industry in which workers have organized to demand it.

The fight to increase the minimum wage is a movement. The fast-food industry is where it began. The hope is that it will spread to other industries and eventually become the standard in the country. And there’s reason to believe it’s working. Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles are increasing their minimum wages to $15 over the coming years; Tacoma will vote on a similar measure this fall. Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley support a $15 federal minimum wage. Hillary Clinton and a couple Republican candidates – Rick Santorum and Ben Carson – support increasing it (though not necessarily to $15). The Fight for 15 movement has incorporated workers from other low-wage industries to push for higher pay.

The ball is rolling. If fast-food workers set it in motion, I think we have more reason to be grateful for their initiative rather than to insult them and their work. Moralistic arguments like the ones above divide us against one another and obscure the real issue – that low-wage workers deserve better than they’re getting. And we can do better.

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