If This Pandemic Has Taught Us Anything, It Is That People Need Wages They Can Live On
June 16, 2019, marked the longest stretch that the United States had gone without raising the minimum wage since the invention of the minimum wage; it was just shy of 10 years since it was raised from $6.55 an hour to $7.25, in July 2009. Now it's been more than a year and a half longer. One of the first things Joe Biden has planned to do as president is to raise the minimum wage to the $15 an hour we all first started asking for in 2012, when it would have been a living wage. It is not currently a living wage for most of America, but it's more than double what minimum wage workers in many states are getting right now — so it's certainly an improvement.
This increase is going into the next COVID-19 relief bill, which feels almost poetic given that this pandemic should have taught everyone a very important lesson about the value of those minimum wage jobs. When this pandemic first started, we quickly learned which jobs were and were not "essential" and it turned out that a whole lot of the jobs that we actually cannot survive without people doing are those minimum wage jobs. Other people were able to stay home, but people who worked at grocery stores, at Target, at Wal-Mart, the people who cared for our sick and our elderly, they had to go in and put their lives at risk because otherwise most of us would not have been able to eat or wipe our own asses.
One would think that a job that important ought to be a job that a person can actually live on. In fact, most Americans believed that before the pandemic. In July of 2019, a Pew Research poll found that two-thirds of Americans supported raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, with 41 percent saying they strongly favored it. And it is very likely that even more favor it now.
Of course, what you're going to hear right up until it passes (we hope) is that it's just incredibly controversial. We'll hear all the same arguments and fear mongering we hear every time there is a minimum wage increase or discussion of a minimum wage increase. It should, however, be more clear than ever that these arguments are bullshit.
People need a certain amount to live on. If a business hires employees and doesn't pay them enough to live on, they are a drain on taxpayers because taxpayers then have to shore up the difference to ensure that those people have food, shelter, healthcare and other basic necessities. As we learned this pandemic, people don't suddenly stop needing these things when they don't have any money.
It is understood that if one can't afford to buy certain things, one cannot afford to have a business. If you can't buy a storefront or a building, if you can't afford products to sell, if you can't afford whatever else you need, etc. This is considered a given. Not everyone can afford to have a business. If you can't pay your employees enough to live on, you can't afford to have employees, and if your business needs employees in order to function, then that means you cannot afford to have a business.
Probably my favorite argument against raising the minimum wage is that businesses would be forced to charge their customers way more for things than they are currently charging them. I mean, my God, I sold people pleather purses that cost $10 at shops in Koreatown for $150 in a boutique. Anyone who is stupid enough to believe that businesses are actually charging them less than the absolute most they think people will pay is too much of a sucker to contribute anything meaningful to any conversation, but particularly this one. Businesses do not screw their employees and then pass the savings onto you, the consumer — and if you actually think they do, I've got a $150 pleather handbag to sell you.
Just to refresh your memories, here is a sample budget that McDonald's suggested for their workers in 2012. It required working a second job at around 32 hours a week in addition to one's full-time McDonald's job and still was not enough to get by on. Notably, it did not include money for food or gas or other transportation to get to and from these two jobs and had zero budgeted for heating — because hey, why not freeze to death?
The $20 budget for healthcare, I assume, is meant to go to a small bottle of Tylenol, a box of tissues and a package of Band-Aids.
Call me a radical, but I think if someone works 72 hours a week, they should be able to afford gas/bus fare and food.
This budget seemed ridiculous in 2012 and it's even more ridiculous now that the cost of living has increased. Heck, $7.25 is now worth $1.50 less in purchasing power than it was in 2009, when the minimum wage raised to $7.25. This works out to $60 less a week and $3,120 a year. That's not nothing. Especially when you're making minimum wage.
Just as a reminder, by the way, this budget was meant for a single person supporting only themselves. 28 percent of minimum wage workers have children.
It's not just minimum wage workers who will be getting a pay raise, of course — it's 42 percent of the United States. Because 42 percent of the United States makes under $15 an hour, and that statistic is from before the pandemic. Think about that. 42 percent of the country does not make enough to live on. Clearly, something is not working — and it's not us. Productivity has increased, rich people have gotten super rich, and, again, 42 percent of the country does not make enough to get by.
Look at how super rich all those rich people got!
We're the richest nation on earth and 42 percent of us do not earn enough to live. The dam is bursting. That's not just morally wrong, it's not just cruel, it's legitimately unsustainable.
Sure, $15 seems like a big leap from $7.25, but we missed out on the chance to do baby steps. Now, $15 is the baby step.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse