McDonald’s pays many of its workers minimum wage, despite outspoken criticism of the low wage. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia)
Imagine that you are the mother of two young children and you work full time to support them, yet the pay you receive is not adequate to make ends meet. When you call your company’s resource line, the representative tells you to look into federal food stamps and Medicaid. According to a recent Huffington Post article, this is what happened to 27-year-old McDonald’s worker Nancy Salgado.
What is wrong with this picture? Is it right that someone who works full time should need government assistance for food and health care? The argument over the minimum wage is complicated and fraught with conflicting political and social ideologies, but these questions ought to be at the heart of the issue.
Salgado is part of a group of many fast food workers who have protested low pay in the past year and want fast food companies to pay $15 per hour. The federal minimum wage is $7.25. According to The New York Times, fast food companies argue
that the request for a minimum pay of $15 is “ludicrous” because it is more than double the current minimum wage.
The same article notes that industry officials contend that a small portion of those who work in the restaurant industry make the minimum wage and most of those people are under 25. However, it also notes that the median pay for fast food workers across the country is $9.05 per hour. Is this enough to be called a “living wage”?
The basic argument of most corporate officials and politicians who oppose a minimum wage increase, or even the existence of a minimum wage, is that the cost will drive companies out of business, and result in the loss of jobs because they will not be able to pay as many workers.
In addition, some economists argue that increasing the minimum wage actually hurts poverty reduction because it decreases the employment of young, low-skilled people and increases the likelihood that employers will hire teenagers over adults.
On the other hand, minimum wage supporters argue that the outcry for higher wages is a response to the growing income inequality in the United States. In his State of the Union address in February, President Obama said, “Even with the tax relief we’ve put in place, a family with two kids that earns the minimum wage still lives below the poverty line. That’s wrong.”
A proposal by the White House would increase the minimum wage to $9 by 2015 and would tie the minimum wage to inflation.
Fordham political science professor Idalia Bastiaens says that “the system we use to measure poverty [in the US..] is really outdated.”
In the minds of many Americans, living above the poverty line looks like a roof over your head and food on the table, but getting by in the current economy involves a much more complicated look at food, technology, gas and utilities. The idea of supporting the working class is unpopular, especially with the strong community of neo-classical school of economic thought in our country, who argue that any government intervention in the market hurts productivity.
Bastiens notes that, compared with other developed countries, the U.S. does poorly in providing benefits to its citizens, but that “there’s a trade off” because welfare programs can be a strain on the economies of countries that do provide more. She says that “you have to find a balance,” where the economy continues to grow but the people are also provided for.
It is important to consider the reservations of those economists who argue that an increase in the minimum wage might hurt the economy and even produce more poverty. A blind increase to a minimum of $15 might strain the economy too much. It is also important to realize the real reactions that employers might have to an increase.
It is also important, however, to realize that it is wrong that a full-time worker should need federal assistance in order to provide for her children.
Minimum wage laws do indeed need to strike a “balance” between blindly mandating a higher wage and creating conditions in which workers are able to work full time and provide for themselves and their families.
Claire Connacher, FCRH ’15, is a history major from Alameda, Calif.