Unless you count my artistic and business efforts, I’ve only worked for minimum wage one time in my life. I also only belonged to a union once, at the same job. After union dues came out of my check each week, you can technically say I was making less than minimum wage thanks to the union I was required to join if I wanted the job. Once they took taxes out of it, that was a miserable paycheck indeed. What I didn’t realize back then was that I wasn’t accounting for inflation, or how it was affecting my ability to earn and save. I was just happy to see minimum wage jump from $3.35 to $3.80 not long after I got the job, which resulted in a nice little bump in my weekly allowance.
Yeah, I’ve been around awhile. So what?
Back then, almost everything cost less. Some things have stayed the same, or gotten cheaper. Manufacturing costs can go down with new technology, and prices are often adjusted accordingly; but for the most part, stuff costs a lot more now than it did back when I cashed my first real paycheck. It only makes sense that minimum wage would continue to rise right along with inflation, from many workers’ perspectives.
Except that it doesn’t, not really.
A modern inflation calculator will tell you that a dollar in 1970 had the buying power of over six dollars in 2018. Minimum wage was two dollars an hour back then, which makes for pretty easy math. Had one risen right alongside the other, federal minimum wage would be soaring at around twelve dollars an hour; more like thirteen if you don’t round down like I did. Yet the thought of raising it to even ten dollars an hour freaks out a lot of business owners, who can barely afford to pay the workers they have what the federal government is currently requiring; which is $7.25, by the way. After working a ton of hours for free just to get their business started, which nobody has a problem with, many business owners are now being forced to work more free hours than ever because they can’t afford to hire help.
My grandfather on my Dad’s side retired at around forty years old, and went into local politics. I told him when I entered the work force that I wanted to do the same, at least the ‘retiring at forty’ part of it. He laughed at me, and told me that was why he had gotten into politics. After watching opportunities dwindle from one generation to the next before his very eyes, he was very quick to warn me that my path would not be so easy as his had been. Even if I didn’t have kids, he said, I’d have to work at least four times harder than he had. He saw local politics as his best chance to help turn this tide somehow, and make more opportunities available to each generation instead of less.
Well, the tide has still not turned. As much as I admire the efforts of people like my grandfather, I can’t help but wonder if there’s really anything that can be done at that level. We already know the federal reserve isn’t federal; but that doesn’t change the fact that the folks in charge of it control the rate of inflation in this country. Between them deliberately lowering the value of their own currency, and the actual federal government needing more money from taxpayers with each new administration, Americans have very little buying power compared to our counterparts from yesteryear.
And no matter how cheap some products become, a continually rising unemployment rate still puts those products out of the reach of many consumers. Just because they cook the books to make it look like it isn’t so bad doesn’t mean those of us out there in the trenches aren’t seeing how many people are out of decent work for the foreseeable future. Even if businesses could afford to pay fifteen bucks an hour minimum, that’s not enough to sustain a household in many markets. Two steady incomes at this rate might make it, but it’s at the cost of not raising their kids well or living the kind of balanced life that used to be available to the average American.
We used to make some of the best stuff in the world, here in the United States. We were a nation of innovators, pioneers turned technological trailblazers. We were so certain collectively that our future was in production, we designed it so our public schools produce factory workers. Nobody imagined that other countries would learn to do virtually everything we do better and faster and cheaper, back when we started training our young people to be adept at answering to a clanging bell. Everyone kind of figured America was on the fast track to being the most prosperous nation of all time, back when we were. It was pretty clear that life was going to just keep getting better and better here, and it would take a real concentrated effort to head this big ship in another direction.
Then that effort came to pass, and our country became a much different thing than it had been before. It’s still changing, some saying it’s getting worse while others insist it keeps getting better; but either way you look at it, you can’t deny that we were warned this would happen. Minimum wage and inflation are clear benchmarks for our economy, and having a look at how they compare over the years shows us that modern minimum wage workers have it worse than ever in our country.
So we know business owners have no minimum wage, and that minimum wage trails the rate of inflation pretty drastically. We need to go into one other side of this issue before I can put it to rest, though; and we’ll be doing that next week. Since different jobs require different skill sets and training regimens, some of the people who want to get into certain fields just don’t have the ability to do so. Apprenticeships turned into internships in recent years, but they’re basically the same thing. When someone wants to learn a field, the best way to do it is often to work in that field. Although they don’t benefit the employer as much as they benefit themselves in many of these situations, the recent demand to pay interns minimum wage has slammed a door in these people’s faces while still somehow sounding like a good idea.
We’ll talk more about that next week, in a post called…
I hope you come back for it, and that you enjoyed this week’s post!
Thanks for reading!
All the best,