Thursday, November 21, 2013

Are Poverty Wages Ever Justified?

The answer should be simply no. I imagine as I look into the issue I'll find some cases where a wage that would lead an individual, working full-time, to live below the poverty level might make sense -- part-time teenaged workers looking for some play money, for example -- but even such exceptions might be hard to justify.

My own experience -- paper boy, summer jobs at Jack in the Box and Tillie's Cafe in Long Beach in the high-school years -- actually makes a good case in point. All my co-workers were middle- and lower-middle-class youngsters looking for some money to supplement or replace the good old parents' allowance. But that's not who has those jobs anymore.

Papers are delivered these days by adults, mostly private contractors, often as a second job. Opinions about the pay vary.

Fast-food workers have long ago stopped being a job for teenagers to supplement their parents' allowance. The average age is now thirty, with many using the job to support, or help support, a family. Here in California, the vast majority of fast-food workers are Hispanic.

The Tillie's Cafe model, that of a greasy spoon serving a neighborhood, still exists. I assume this industry tracks the fast-food industry. Workers get minimum wage, again mostly Hispanic in my experience.

I've done a reasonable amount of traveling, and maids in motels and hotels across the county are women, almost exclusively Hispanic. By and large, the maids get minimum wage.

These poverty wage jobs I'm looking at are the visible ones. The invisible ones, the farm workers, the meat packers, the sweat shops, the places undocumented immigrants work, I don't know much about.

Then there are the retail jobs, the most visible of which are the ones in big-box stores like Walmart, Kmart, Target, etc. Again, minimum wage, or near-minimum wage, is the norm.

Considering just the categories listed above -- and leaving out newspaper delivery contractors -- is minimum-wage pay ever justified?

I quickly arrive at the simplest answer: no. I realize there may be factors that complicate the issue. Fine. But in an advanced, industrialized, developed nation there are few justifications for paying a full-time worker a wage that doesn't provide a basic, dignified living. What's more, setting up a system, like many industries do, where using a multitude of part-time workers simply to avoid having to pay benefits like healthcare is essentially an immoral act. It's done to exploit workers who have little control over their fate, due to lack of education or opportunity.

If a worker is doing his or her job properly, then exploiting them simply because they don't qualify for higher-skilled work is an immoral act, in my view.

What's wrong with the following assertion?

We don't have to pay them a living wage because they're unskilled.

Here's the answer: If they can work for you, they should make a living wage. After all, if they work full-time, they should be able to go home at the end of the day knowing they can pay for a safe, healthy place to live, a nutritional diet, and transportation necessary for an ordinary life. This ordinary life should also include, typically, a phone, a TV, and a computing device. These are necessities. Don't even try to say they're not. This is not the 12th century.

If a company splits up their full-time jobs so they can justify them as being "supplemental income," then that company is committing an immoral act. They do that to avoid taking responsibility for their employees' well-being. (I'm not talking about justified part-time work. Reasons exist for it. Paying part-time workers less than full-time workers for the same work is not justified.)

Let libertarians insist that we live in a capitalist, free-enterprise country, and the pursuit of profit is the name of the game. If someone can't make a living, don't blame the system. Go out and get a better job. They can say that all they want. It's bunk.

If a company creates a job -- assuming adding that job adds utility to the company's operation -- then allowing that job, in a moral, ethical country, to not provide a living wage can only mean that the company's purpose in doing so is to exploit a worker without any concern for that worker's well-being. And that's an immoral act.

The libertarian's answer? Immoral acts, if not illegal, are okay in pursuit of profits.

I don't want to live in that guy's country, if you don't mind. Do you? Think about it.

I don't like to use such a phrase -- since I don't believe it's true -- but if we're the "greatest country on the face of the Earth," then how on Earth can we justify shortchanging even one citizen?

Yeah, I'm an idealist, so I'm a sucker for a scene like the one above. Yet, expecting businesses in an advanced country -- one that, yes, is the greatest economy in the world -- to pay a living wage is not the act of an idealist. It's a reasonable expectation, indeed, a moral imperative.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting article, although I would disagree with your view of increasing minimum wage.I think what hurts unskilled workers the increase of minimum wage because businesses are there to make a profit. If they don't make money, then they go out of business and the worker loses his job regardless. Paying a worker a salary above what he is worth is bad business plan. Other countries such as Denmark and Norway which seem to be performing better than the U.S in almost every category don't have minimum wage laws and they pay their workers salary that are higher than the minimum wage here in the U.S. Basically my view is don't tamper with market forces, let the invisible hand work its magic.