Asking for the Bare Minimum

By Evangelia Analitis

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Photo by Katie Harp on Unsplash

When the thirteen American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain in 1776, they asserted the inalienable rights of all individuals to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, establishing these ideals as the pillars of the new American nation. The government was to have a responsibility, above all, to ensure these three rights for its citizens. The unalienable rights seem relatively simple, yet their broad nature has set the stage for perpetual disagreements within the United States regarding how to best protect them. Americans have generally grouped themselves into two main schools of thought about the role that government should play in the country. One of these welcomes active government intervention in citizens' lives and hands-on government measures to promote the founding principles of the nation. The other holds that government should play as small a role as possible in the country's affairs while still upholding people's rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The problem is that both of these schools of thought claim to best contribute to people's prosperity and pleasure, and nearly every social and political debate with which America has ever grappled has been framed in terms of the degree of appropriate government involvement.

One of the most recent social topics of debate to grip the nation has been the minimum wage, due in part to the ascendance of politicians who favor greater government regulation of the economy and labor force, such as presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders. In this research paper, I will examine the minimum wage in America in relation to the government's responsibility to promote life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for Americans, and I will explore its relationship to education and economic status. I will argue that, in order for the government to best fulfill the American promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the federal minimum wage should be raised. In spite of its drawbacks, a higher minimum wage is essential to improving the quality of life for working-class Americans and should be pursued immediately and vigorously.

A minimum wage was first instituted in the United States in 1938, through the Fair Labor Standards Act, set at twenty-five cents per hour. Congress has increased the minimum wage over the years, with the federal minimum wage currently set at $7.25 since 2009, and states and municipalities may set higher minimum wages if they please (Sutch). While the federal minimum wage is a base amount of pay that workers must receive per hour of work, certain groups of workers, including full-time students, youth workers, and disabled workers, are excluded from this minimum wage and may be paid less by their employers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2012, 1.6 million workers earned the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, and 2 million workers, falling into one of the above excluded groups, earned less than that ("The History of the Minimum Wage"). The earning of such low wages has caused much backlash from blue-collar workers and their political allies, spurring protest movements such as the Fight for Fifteen. The Fight "began in 2012 when two hundred fast-food workers walked off the job to demand $15/hr and union rights in New York City" ("About Us") and is currently a massive global social movement agitating for higher pay for workers. Its goal in the United States is to cause the federal minimum wage to be raised to fifteen dollars, and it has already had some success, with California, Massachusetts, New York, Washington, D.C., and New Jersey in the process of implementing a statewide fifteen-dollar minimum wage over the next few years.

Possessing the inalienable right to life in today's world includes having access to the necessities of daily life, such as food, shelter, and healthcare. The members of the Fight for Fifteen movement frequently call for the minimum wage to be a "living wage," meaning an amount of money that enables an individual to afford the basics mentioned above, in order to live decently and comfortably. This varies, of course, in different regions of the country. The Bureau of Economic Analysis has calculated regional price parities–which measure the difference in local price levels of goods and services across the country, relative to the overall national price level (set at 100)–for the nation's 382 metropolitan statistical areas (DeSilver). Thus, a federal minimum wage of fifteen dollars will have a different purchasing power in different states and municipalities. For example, in Beckley, West Virginia, $15 has a real purchasing power of $19.04, whereas in the San Francisco Bay Area, the purchasing power of $15 ranges from $11.80 to $12.03 (DeSilver). This means that some people will benefit more than others from an increased federal minimum wage, based on their geographical region.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services' poverty guidelines for 2019, an annual income of $12,490 for one person, or $25,750 for a four-person household, constitutes the poverty threshold in forty-eight states, not including Alaska or Hawaii ("Poverty Guidelines"). Working the standard full-time workload of forty hours per week and earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, assuming payment for all fifty-two weeks of the year, a worker would make $15,080, which is below HHS's poverty guidelines for any household with more than one person. Even if one person had to live off this wage, he or she would just barely be above the national poverty level. Under the same conditions, however, if the minimum wage were fifteen dollars an hour, a worker would earn $31,200 a year, a substantially higher income and one that surpasses the poverty threshold for households of up to five people ("Poverty Guidelines"). A fifteen-dollar minimum wage, while clearly still low, is a much more suitable living wage than the federal minimum wage or even higher local minimum wages that are still below fifteen dollars. As a result of the United States' privatized healthcare system, "U.S. healthcare spending was about $7,439 per person" in 2007 (Kumar). This accounts for about half of a federal minimum wage earner's yearly income, meaning that healthcare costs would either financially cripple such a person, or the individual would forego some of the healthcare he or she needs due to being unable to afford it. Raising the minimum wage to fifteen dollars would better enable an American to pay his or her healthcare costs. Given that healthcare is a fundamental right, being a component of the right to life, the U.S. government should promote access to healthcare, in this case financially, as a part of upholding its citizens' inalienable right to life. A similar argument holds for other basic necessities, such as food and housing.

Many opponents of raising the minimum wage take issue with the general concept as a whole as well as the particular desired rate of fifteen dollars. Such fiscal conservatives oppose government involvement in the labor market and consider it a violation of employers' rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness for the government to force them to pay their employees any particular amount at all, let alone a higher amount. They also regard the raising of the minimum wage as a slippery slope and consider fifteen dollars to be an abstract number. They complain that if we start with fifteen, soon it will be twenty, then thirty, later fifty, and so on. If you give the members of the Fight for Fifteen an inch, they will take a mile. Furthermore, people only deserve to earn so much for performing unskilled labor, and that amount is less than fifteen dollars an hour, reason opponents of a higher minimum wage. While proponents of capitalism might be inclined to agree with this reasoning–that is, to let the labor market rule–the government has a responsibility to intervene when people's lives, liberty, and ability to pursue happiness are at risk, as they are here.

A person's right to live in decent standards, to be free from worry about providing for him- or herself, and to pursue his or her aspirations, well-being, and pleasure trump another's right to profit. Given the still relatively low annual income that a fifteen-dollar minimum wage would yield (shown by above data), it is unreasonable for an opponent of raising the minimum wage to argue that people who perform unskilled labor do not deserve a higher wage than they currently receive; the specific amount in consideration, fifteen dollars, would only marginally place a small family above the poverty level and is just a slightly more reasonable and livable wage. Furthermore, the slippery slope argument that some employ to attack the goal amount of fifteen dollars is also flawed. The concern that, if a fifteen-dollar minimum wage is achieved now, workers' rights advocates would simply move on to a new goal of a higher minimum wage deals with a hypothetical scenario and should hold no bearing in the handling of the current situation of minimum-wage workers needing more money in their pockets right now in order to survive.

Thus far, I have introduced the concept of minimum wage in America and examined it in relation to poverty and to basic decent living conditions. I have established that the government of the United States has a duty to guarantee its citizens the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and have claimed that it should institute a higher national minimum wage, particularly fifteen dollars an hour, in order to do so. I have demonstrated that the guarantee of a living wage to workers is an essential component of protecting their right to life, given that an individual requires access to necessities such as food, housing, and healthcare in order to live (well). From this point forward, I will tie the government's duty to ensure the other two unalienable rights for all Americans to the need for a higher minimum wage in the country by exploring the free market as a metaphorical prison, along with the relationship between poverty and happiness.

In his article "The Market as Prison," Charles E. Lindblom asserts that an "automatic punishing mechanism" operates within the U.S. market. The concept of a punishing mechanism, in general, is predicated upon the notion that an institution is designed in a way such that any attempt to alter it automatically triggers punishment. In the context of the market, specifically, the automatic punishing mechanism means that "many kinds of market reform automatically trigger punishments in the form of unemployment or a sluggish economy" (Lindblom). Essentially, as a product of our dependence upon it in a capitalist society, the market imprisons us by forcing us to capitulate to its whims, or else we ourselves will suffer from a poor economy. This thinking guides fiscal conservatives' thought on labor markets and thus largely drives their opposition to increasing the minimum wage.

Lindblom further argues that the market system is an inducement system, meaning that any change that business people do not like "is a disincentive, an anti-inducement, leading them not to perform their function or to perform it with less vigor" (Lindblom). In the context of the minimum wage, Lindblom's argument implies that compelling employers to pay their employees a higher wage is both a disincentive to the employers and a change to the market and would thus trigger the automatic punishing mechanism. In order to compensate for having to pay their employees a higher amount, employers–we would expect–would decrease their employees' work hours and/or employ fewer people overall by laying off individuals. As a result, the labor market holds the minimum wage hostage in a sense; if the wage is raised at all, events that reduce minimum-wage workers' employment naturally follow.

When I assert the government's obligation to protect the liberty of all its people, I have in mind a broad definition of liberty. Beyond the obvious physical freedom from enslavement or oppression, liberty also means the mental freedom from worry about one's survival and freedom to live unfettered by the chains of the market that have the capability to dictate one's access to means of survival and welfare. Thus, in order to promote this notion of freedom for all of its citizens, the government should ensure that minimum-wage workers earn a living wage.

Not only does a low minimum wage mentally and financially imprison a worker, but research by Dr. Lisa A. Gennetian of the American Psychological Association indicates that poverty, which inevitably results from an extremely low minimum wage, takes a mental toll on an individual that undermines his or her economic opportunity. Dr. Gennetian argues that "the context of poverty alone, whether born into it or not, creates a psychological trap" (Gennetian). Gennetian maintains that destitute people have to consider both time and money in ways that financially-secure people do not, and poverty drains one's capacity for attention and self-control. Thus, poverty actually begets more poverty by its very presence, since by mentally draining the individual it afflicts, it can cause small financial mishaps to spiral into major financial crises. I have already established that the current national minimum wage, and most state and local wages that are higher, place a worker at the poverty level. Consequently, a failure to raise the minimum wage to a living wage, of fifteen dollars, in particular, constitutes government negligence of its responsibility to promote the American people's pursuit of happiness because people living in poverty as a result of earning a low wage will fall into the draining psychological trap of poverty that Dr. Gennetian discusses in her research. Overall, Dr. Gennetian's research supports the idea that government has the duty to ensure a stable, decent wage to minimum-wage earners in order to enable them to pursue happiness in America.

One principal point of contention regarding the minimum wage is the distinction between skilled and unskilled labor and the question of how much pay a person deserves for performing a menial task. Pro-market individuals argue that the market naturally rewards skill and education and that one's economic fate is completely in his or her hands. If a worker wishes to earn a good wage or salary, he or she should acquire the skills and education to obtain a high-paying job. Beyond merely the question of whether or not minimum-wage workers deserve higher pay, however, pro-market individuals oppose raising the minimum wage for reasons that they claim are actually in the interests of low-wage earners. The following counterargument to the benefits of raising the minimum wage merits consideration: According to pro-market individuals, if the government makes the minimum wage a living wage, off of which a person or family can live comfortably, this would disincentivize people from attaining higher education because they would be content with receiving a decent minimum wage as opposed to spending significant money and effort in college and/or graduate school. Consequently, a fifteen-dollar federal minimum wage would lead to a less-educated populace, the drawbacks of which are twofold: Lacking a college degree and satisfied with minimum-wage work, people would reject the prospect of social mobility and accept their position as minimum-wage workers as the highest economic status they would achieve in life, limiting their capacity for the pursuit of happiness. Secondly, individuals who decide to forego college miss out on the intellectual, cultural, and social growth they would experience in a university, decreasing their capacity for mental liberty.

Research conducted by Michele Campolieti, Morley Gunderson, and Byron Lee on the effects of minimum wage on poverty in Canada determined that, "Overall, the evidence on the effect of minimum wages on schooling tends to be mixed, although most studies tend to find that higher minimum wages encourage students to leave school to try to obtain the higher-wage minimum wage jobs" (Campolieti et. al 290). According to their findings, higher minimum wages encouraged youths to drop out of school in favor of jobs now paying higher minimum wages, causing them to miss out on the long-term advantages higher education would give them in the workforce and also on the credential effects they would have gained by obtaining a bachelor's degree. David Neumark and William Wascher came to a similar conclusion in their research of the effects of minimum wage on employment and school enrollment, finding that, "Minimum wages lead to a decline in the school enrollment rate and an increase in the proportion of teenagers who are neither employed nor enrolled" (Neumark).

In spite of studies such as the ones above showing a correlation between higher minimum wage and lower school enrollment rates, not all research seems to agree with this association. John Robert Warren and Caitlin Hamrock set out to further investigate the relationship between higher minimum wage rates and high school completion rates, from a sociological, psychological, and educational perspective. Warren and Hamrock point out the mixed nature of the conclusions of previous research regarding this topic, which has found that increasing the minimum wage has anywhere from negative to positive to no effects on school enrollment. They aim, in their own research, to confront the shortcomings of the methodologies of previous studies. They address what they consider to be three deficiencies in previous research: the narrowness of the range of years in which the impact of the minimum wage on school enrollment was measured, bias in measuring high school completion rates, and unsatisfactory measurement of minimum wage rates.

Warren's and Hamrock's study examines the minimum wage rates for each state from 1982 through 2005 alongside the state high school graduation rates for the graduating classes of 1982 through 2005. In their attempt to overcome inadequacies of previous research, Warren and Hamrock ultimately did not find any evidence that increasing the minimum wage reduces rates of high school completion, thus debunking the argument that raising the minimum wage will have the undesirable and counterproductive consequence of decreasing educational attainment among Americans (Warren). Moreover, one can reach this conclusion logically by considering the matter. While some people certainly might opt for a higher minimum wage over attaining higher education, most people are more influenced by the prospect of greater long-term gains that will result from increasing their education level than a current higher-paying minimum-wage job, which offers practically no potential for social mobility. Thus, it is irrational to believe that slightly raising the minimum wage in the U.S. would be so appealing to people that it would lead to a significant replacement of education by minimum wage employment.

The Fight for Fifteen is a social movement relevant to every American. While it is most obviously a push for workers' rights and improved employment conditions, it is at its heart an effort to engender the ideals of America's founding. While workers and employers will be most tangibly affected by the result of the movement, whether the federal minimum wage increases or remains at its current level, all Americans should closely follow the Fight for Fifteen because it is a test of government fulfillment of its purpose–to promote the lives, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of every American. Asking our government to raise the minimum wage is asking for the bare minimum.