Eugene Robinson: Lessen government dependence — raise the minimum wage

By Eugene Robinson

Syndicated columnist

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WASHINGTON — Now that President Obama has outlined the crisis in economic mobility, he should begin by pressing his demand that Congress raise the minimum wage — and not by a little, but a lot.

Obama’s speech Wednesday about the need to redress growing inequality was sweeping and comprehensive — perhaps to a fault. In outlining solutions, he talked about the minimum wage. But he also mentioned immigration reform, rewriting the corporate tax code, eliminating the “sequester” budget cuts, holding down tuition costs for higher education, providing universal preschool, retraining the long-term unemployed, creating “Promise Zones” in poor communities ... the list goes on.

All are worthy goals, but what chance is there of getting such an ambitious agenda through Congress? The Republican majority in the House disagrees with Obama philosophically and opposes him reflexively; if he’s for it, they’re against it.

We know from the debt-ceiling fight, however, that House Republicans can be induced to do the right thing — if the political cost of doing the wrong thing is unacceptably high. And this looks like an issue on which Obama and the Democrats should be able to get real traction.

The federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is shamefully low compared to minimum wage levels in other industrialized countries — nearly $13 in France, for example, and around $10 in Britain and Canada.

The highest minimum wage in a major country is Australia’s — in U.S. dollars, a whopping $14.88 an hour at the current exchange rate. Conservatives would howl if anyone in Washington proposed such a thing. According to Republican dogma, such a high minimum wage would be the ultimate job-killer, a disastrous move that could only choke off the recovery and perhaps send the economy back into recession.

Apparently, nobody told all this to the Australians. Unemployment there is 5.7 percent, versus 7.3 percent in the United States. The Australian economy escaped the Great Recession of 2007-08, and in fact hasn’t seen any kind of recession in 20 years. (Oh, and Australia has universal health care, too, but perhaps that’s another column.)

In the economic sense, raising the minimum wage would put more money into the pockets of those who now must be classified as the “working poor.” That phrase really should be an oxymoron; anyone who works full-time ought to be able to earn a living. But just try to live on $7.25 an hour.

Low-wage workers often have to take a second or even a third job to be able to afford the necessities — rent, food, clothing, health care. Creativity and initiative are stifled by the need to work such grueling hours just to stay in place.

Conservatives complain about growing dependence on government benefits — the infamous “47 percent” theory that got Mitt Romney in such trouble. But if you force people to work for $7.25 hour, you’re basically guaranteeing that they need a range of government help: food stamps, housing assistance, tax credits and so forth. Conservatives also say they worry about the weakening of family structure. I can think of nothing that would do more to strengthen low-income families than paying them a living wage.

The reason we have a problem with rising inequality and declining economic mobility is that low-end wages have stagnated while high-end compensation has soared. The standard Republican objection is that raising the minimum wage will hurt small businesses, but I believe these businesses will adjust — and that many will thrive, since more people will be able to afford their goods and services.

President Obama should specify a number — at least $10 an hour — and go out on one of his barnstorming tours. Democrats should make the issue a central theme of the 2014 campaign. I believe the public will respond, which means that, ultimately, Republicans will respond.

The president has a long agenda. This is where he should start.

Washington Post Writers Group


Ms. Helen Keller said...

philanthropy is a symptom of a broken system. Ms. Keller has become the butt of many jokes, but SHE was no joke. Much of what she said about women's suffrage and the needs of the worker apply directly to us today. We praise the rich man who gives to charities when we should be spanking him for starving his workers. Now that I've raised Ms. Keller's name, I'm sure that some of my more thoughtful Republican friends will scramble to look her up. To those that do, please hear her words and ignore the labels. Once you've heard her words, consider the context of her experience of life in America. Then ask yourselves what's changed? Mr. Robinson and Ms. Keller are both correct. Poverty level wages drives poverty, which in turn drives the welfare state. BUT, there's more to this than wages. Check out Maslow's Hierarchy, followed by Drs. Bowlby and Ainsworth's work to define "Attachment Theory." And finally, a brief review of Paul Ehrlich's population studies summed up in "The Population Bomb." Slower readers might consider "The Pig Bomb" movie which could be viewed as a striking analogy for human overpopulation and resource competition that's beginning to be felt right here. THEN let's all sit down together and have a nice chat about real changes that we can make to end poverty and crime, and pass a green and blue world to our grandkids, instead of hip-waders. Maybe together we can avoid violent revolution and the apocalypse that is being sold by our christian radicals and the NRA. Respectfully Submitted, Force 12

Increased Wages - Good or Bad

Raising the minimum wage always sounds like a part of the solution to poverty and a better standard of living for millions of minimum wage employees. The problem I see is that goods and services costs will likely increase to pay the increased wages. Social Security payments or private pension recipients would not automatically receive pay increases which might create stress for them if costs increased. Many of these minimum wage might be high school students who live at home with their parent. What would be the effect on the earnings of the top 10% of individuals.

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