They are everywhere. More join their ranks with each passing day. You may even be one yourself.
They scrub zinc countertops and wax windowpanes; they mow suburban lawns to a fine crop; they take your order at the register and then catalyze the industrial chemical reaction that transforms a pulp of corn flour and rotting cabbage leaves into a Taco Bell Crunchwrap Supreme.
They are the minimum-wage laborers of America, and our society would atrophy without them. These sufferers are the bedrock that supports the fragile superstructure of white privilege. Without them our skin would break out in oozing pustules for lack of public sanitation, our children would coalesce into gangs of knife-wielding street thugs, and uncaffeinated American office workers would quiver helplessly under their paperwork-inundated desks.
But oh how little we appreciate them. We do not talk down to or verbally berate doctors, lawyers or—the real villains!—financial consultants as we do baristas, custodians or adult video store clerks.
These men and women languish in a dismal cycle of poverty. At the current federal minimum-wage rate of $7.25 per hour, a full-time worker earns only $15,080 a year. This is more than $8,000 under the federal poverty level for a family of four. Minimum-wage workers can barely afford to feed, clothe and shelter themselves, much less raise families or invest in their futures.
So why is it that congressional Republicans—the sunny-eyed advocates of the American dream and its pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps optimism—are hostile to President Barack Obama’s goal of raising the federal minimum-wage rate to $9 per hour?
The president made a strong commitment to a national minimum-wage increase in February’s State of the Union Aspirations-for-a-Bright-Future Extravaganza. Aside from taking the working poor off a diet of boiled cabbage and sawdust, the increase should benefit the whole economy. “For businesses across the country, it would mean customers with more money in their pockets,” said the Henry Ford-channeling president.
The GOP has countered with pronouncements of “equality of opportunity” informed by the classical economics dogma that minimum-wage laws increase unemployment: “[The president] spoke of workers’ minimum wages, instead of their maximum potential,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Don’t mind getting screwed over now—someday it could be you doing the screwing!
But new studies that challenge the theoretical linkage of higher wages to higher unemployment makes the conservative minimum-wage hike opposition look anachronistic. Many employers squeeze additional productivity out of higher-paid workers, and many business owners note that higher-paid workers are better motivated and have higher morale.
There is little to back up the GOP assertion that higher wages would crush small businesses. In fact, Holly
Sklar of the organization Business for a Fair Minimum Wage said that low wages undermine many businesses’ consumer base.
With the unraveling of economists’ ivory-tower shibboleth on the minimum wage, this columnist can see the root of the minimum-wage opposition: conservatives’ paradoxically anti-capitalist desire to return society to a feudal state.
The recent mortgage foreclosure crisis deprived many Americans of their hard-earned property. Compounded by gaping economic inequality, this means that the poorer are just getting poorer and more indebted. The conservative cabal and their GOP ciphers need just one final push to drive the unwashed hoi polloi horde into manorial servitude.
If the financial elite can continue to force crushing interest payments down the throats of a wage-enslaved American workforce, a new class of the dispossessed will have no choice but to seek their feudal lords’ charity.
The new aristocracy will then beneficently revive the social patronage relationship (the ol’ you-give-me-your-firstborn-daughter-and-I-give-you-a-thatched-hut-for-yourself-and-your-11-children-and-23-goats-and-all-your-combined-garbage-and-feces relationship) that was the essence of the Dark Ages.
But that ain’t so bad, right? Having a fixed and secure position at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder beats the hell out of the slavery of paying 18 years’ worth of interest payments on the loans you took out to finance your liberal arts degree. Republican legislators may as well come out with the truth behind their opposition to the minimum-wage increase so that together we may embrace a destiny that is nasty, brutish and short.