“It is but equity . . . that they who feed, clothe and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labor as to be themselves tolerably well fed, clothed and lodged.” That was from Adam Smith’s 1776 book, “The Wealth of Nations.” Today, more than 200 years later, the United States of America, that shining city on a hill that all can see, is still trying to decide whether or not a person who works 40 hours a week should be able to earn enough money to feed, clothe and house his family.
I remember 1964, when I was 16 and started working after school at Evans & Pyle Hardware on downtown Texas Street. My dad ran the place and he told me that since I was the boss’ kid, I’d always have to work harder than anyone else and that I’d only get minimum wage. That “take away” sales pitch sold me. To me, one hour at the $1.30 minimum wage equated to more than four gallons of gas, enough to cruise Texas Street all evening long.
You can’t do that today; cruising is illegal in Fairfield. Adjusted for inflation, I was enjoying the best American minimum wage, ever. Working for $1.30 an hour in the 1960s was the equivalent of getting more than $10 per hour today.
In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama proposed gradually raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 per hour. That’s not a big deal here in California; we’re already at $8 per hour, but the right-wingers are still raising a stink. We are hearing the same old arguments that have been repeatedly recycled from America’s first minimum wage fight in 1938: “It will hurt business,” and, “It will cause more unemployment.” Like any expense, labor costs are partially defrayed by the corporate tax structure and those extra pennies hidden in your restaurant bill translate into palpable benefits to all those who helped place that food before you.
Even if minimum wage was raised to $9 per hour, working 40 hours per week would get you $18,000 a year, but according to the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute, a family of two parents and two children living in Fairfield actually needs about $50,000 a year to “cover essentials.” At the current $7.25 per hour, that family’s breadwinner would have to work 138 hours per week. At $9 per hour, that number drops dramatically to a mere 111 hours per week, giving our next-door neighbor a well-deserved break.
What happens when minimum wage workers can’t cover the essentials, or get old, sick or injured?
Taxpayers foot the bill. Taxpayers subsidize corporate profits with Earned Income Tax Credits, welfare, MediCal, Social Security and food stamps. If the minimum wage is increased as President Obama proposes, taxpayers will still have to chip in, just not as much. As an added bonus, minimum-wage workers have a lot of pent-up demand. Any extra money they receive will not be shunted off to Swiss bank accounts, but will be spent here and now, benefitting our entire economy.
There have always been and will always be minimum wage workers driving the American economy, doing the things that need to be done, that most of us don’t want to do. District 11 Rep. George Miller said: “It becomes apparent to the public that these people work very hard, in difficult and very dirty jobs, and at the end of a year of working full time, they end up in poverty.”
This issue speaks to us as a society. Personal responsibility should be sufficiently rewarded.
Mike Kirchubel grew up in Fairfield and is the author of “Vile Acts of Evil – Banking in America.” He can be reached at [email protected]