Perhaps there was no greater lightning rod in the President’s State of the Union Address this past Tuesday than the following statement:
Tonight, let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to $9.00 an hour…let’s tie the minimum wage to the cost of living, so that it finally becomes a wage you can live on.
Whether it has been decades since you clocked-in at a retail or food service job or you’re reading this just before the start of your shift, it seems everyone (including us) has an opinion on the subject of raising the minimum wage. Some laud the president for his realization that wages have lagged behind inflation and cost of living for years and amid growing income disparity between haves and so-called “soon-to-haves,” it may be time to adopt some “Robin Hood”-style regulation to greedy corporate profiteers.
Others cry foul, claiming “job creators” would be discouraged from hiring and this might lead to another round of painful job losses or even a second recession. Besides, aren’t most minimum wage jobs held by teenagers? They wouldn’t actively stimulate the economy, unless it’s the video game or retail fashion industries. Why give a wage increase to a bunch of entitled brats who haven’t earned their fair keep anyway?
We’ll excuse some sloppy journalism and inform you that 16 to 19 year-olds make up less than a quarter of the minimum wage workforce. That’s right, half of all minimum wage earners are older than 25. Those are the facts, end of story.
I support an increase in the living wage, since, as a member of the group the media has dubbed “Millenials” (or, depending who you asked, “The Screwed Generation”), I and many of my cohorts have seen the expectations of a four-year education not living up to career reality. In my mid-twenties, I worked an entry-level guest services/security position in a local Norfolk art museum. This jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none job required you to interact with guests, run admissions, and take gift shop and membership orders, all while reminding patrons not to touch marble breasts (yes, we know, you have a real “tactile” way of learning. We all do).
While it was a fun, rewarding job and my co-workers helped keep my sanity during the slow season, starting pay was $8.00 an hour, eventually increased to $8.50 an hour by my third year there. To make matters more complicated, I didn’t work full-time, but in a limbo area called “Regular Part-time,” which left me, like so many in their 20s and 30s, “overeducated and underemployed.” My gross pay would have put me within a hairsbreadth from the poverty threshold had I not had two other part-time jobs. While living with my parents aided in me in saving, something many Millenials have had to do since the recession, when eventually I met someone and wanted to move out, I soon learned the stark reality of how far an $8.50 hourly wage goes in a month.
After I proposed to my (now) wife, we moved into a small apartment in the trendy Ghent district of Norfolk. While charming and affordable, it measured in total about 600 square feet, had no washer, dryer, dishwasher, or air conditioning. Compounded with the cost of rent, gas, groceries, and utilities, there was very little money left for saving at the end of the month, even when “spoiling yourself” meant a $5 six-pack from Trader Joe’s and board games with friends. Some months were razor-thin, and even a few times we had to borrow money from friends to make it.
Since marriage, I left my job at the museum and gone the self-employed route as a private voice and piano instructor. While it presents some of its own challenges financially, we are now able to afford a bigger two-bedroom apartment, bought a new car (thus helping in our own way stimulate the economy), and are saving money towards a future home. The dreams of hearth, home, and family which seemed unobtainable only a few years ago are beginning to become a reality.
In spite of the vociferous complaints by the business and conservative talking heads, us young, lower wage workers deserve a raise. And while countless 26 year-old Starbucks baristas are still asking themselves “What do you do with a B.A. in English?” (maybe write for us?), they should at least not have to worry about whether they can make rent, or the phone bill, or fill the car up or pay for the bus ticket because they are paid less than $9.00 an hour. Let’s make sure our low-paying, entry-level jobs don’t lock out an entire generation out of the American Dream.
*To any readers who believe we should do away with the minimum wage: when businesspeople decided wages for their workers, they paid their employees just enough to keep them starving so they kept coming back. These wages, coincidentally enough, were called starvation wages. I suggest you throw out that copy of Atlas Shrugged and pick up a copy of The Jungle if you want to learn more about how the working poor fare in a pure free-market system (Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard, anyone?).