Respect for Minimum Wage Workers
Published on The Stream on January 30, 2019.
The debates over raising minimum wages have resumed. As we engage in these important discussions, we should carefully consider what they reveal about our attitudes toward work.
The minimum wage issue is not easy. I think everyone likes the idea of working people earning more money. But someone has to pay those wages. When government forces business owners to pay more, those business owners have to make business decisions. Not only can hiking minimum wages lead to layoffs or hour cuts, but they can also discourage new business start-ups.
The best thing we can do for all Americans is to encourage and reward the industrious spirit. We should remove as many hurdles as we can for new start-up businesses. And we should honor and applaud workers at all points on the pay scale.
A Display of Disrespect
This is why a recent aspect of the minimum wage debate in Virginia really disturbed me. In arguing in favor of a jaw-dropping increase of the minimum wage from $7.25 to $15, Democratic state Senator Dick Saslaw said, “I gotta be honest with you--I wouldn’t hire anyone who would work for $7.25 an hour.”
After hearing the statement on a radio broadcast, I was so disturbed by it that I searched online for the Virginia Senate’s recording of the debate, and I listened to the whole thing. Surely, I thought, the the quote had been taken out of context. But no, it hadn’t. It was exactly what it sounded like: a disrespectful, thoughtless slap in the face to every minimum wage-earner in the state.
We need to remember that the value of a worker is not defined by the wage he earns. And the value of work is much greater than the financial reward it brings.
There are all kinds of people who work for minimum wage. High school or college students earning money to pursue their education. Immigrants seeking to build a better life for their families. Mothers entering the job force for the first time after dedicating the prime of their lives to raising children. Fathers struggling to make ends meet after a career setback or family health crisis.
None of these people deserve our scorn. All of them deserve our support and respect.
The Goodness of Work
Despite what some politicians would have us think, work is not a necessary evil, and minimum-wage work is not a cause for shame. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”
We need to remember that it isn’t just the work of doctors, engineers, or rocket scientists that “uplifts humanity.” The waitress who serves diligently and cheerfully is doing her part to uplift humanity. The coal miner is playing a role in providing for the needs of humanity. The trash collector is keeping our communities beautiful and clean. And the factory worker on the midnight shift is building and creating things that we need and use.
Moreover, each of these workers is part of a greater narrative. Each one points the next generation to the truth that work is natural, and expected, and good.
When we treat minimum wage-earners with contempt, we undermine that message. We validate the false idea that only certain types of work are worth doing, and that if a worker can’t get those “important” jobs, he or she is better off relying on others for support. This is precisely the type of thinking that has trapped so many Americans into a cycle of government dependency.
My friend, an educator, once told me about a conversation she had with a young student. When she asked him what he thought he would do when he grew up, he looked at her with a blank stare. She explained, “what do you want to do for your job, to earn money?” He finally replied (as if the answer were obvious) “I’ll just get my check”--a reference to the welfare payments his own mother relied upon.
Before this boy was even old enough to understand what’s at stake, our system had squashed his innate, human desire to earn, create, produce, and achieve.
We must reject the mentality that blinds people to the virtue of work. Work is not solely a means to an end (though it is certainly that). Honest work is good in and of itself--no matter what the pay. And honest people who work hard at their jobs deserve our respect.