By Rob Burgess
— Last year, the National Low Income Housing Association produced a fascinating and disturbing map. Perhaps you’ve seen it.
The representation showed the number of hours per week it would take a minimum-wage worker to afford a two-bedroom apartment in each state.
Keep in mind, this data accounts for no other bills; just housing. Not a single state came in at 40 hours or less. Or 50 hours or less. Or even 60.
The states with the lowest numbers of hours needed — West Virginia and Arkansas — still required 63 hours per week. Indiana clocked in just above that with 74 hours.
That astronomical number turned out to be minimal compared to the highest states: California (130 hours), New York (136 hours), Maryland (137 hours), New Jersey (138 hours) and Washington, D.C. (140 hours). That’s out of a possible 168 hours, which make up a week.
That means a minimum-wage worker in our nation’s capital could only enjoy four non-working hours per day if he’d like to afford the luxury of having a roof over his head.
In case you’ve never experienced it, there’s something extremely demeaning about earning the absolute bottom of the legal pay scale. “Before I started comedy, I used to work at McDonald’s making minimum wage,” comedian Chris Rock once said. “You know what that means when someone pays you minimum wage? You know what your boss was trying to say? It’s like, ‘Hey, if I could pay you less, I would, but it’s against the law.’”
So, as long as we’re insulting people’s humanity, let’s at least make sure they have enough to survive on in the meantime.
I think one of the biggest misconceptions about those in the lower class is that they are lazy. They just aren’t working hard enough, detractors will say. I have worked minimum-wage jobs in my life, and not extremely long ago. I wouldn’t describe myself or my former coworkers as lackadaisical.
In fact, I would posit your average minimum-wage employee completes more thankless tasks than any chief executive you could possibly name. So, in late August when fast-food workers in around 60 cities nationwide went on strike, I cheered on their efforts.
“[The] walkouts follow a series of strikes that began last November in New York City, then spread to cities including Chicago, Detroit and Seattle,” reported the Associated Press Aug. 28. “Workers say they want $15 an hour, which would be about $31,000 a year for full-time employees. That’s more than double the federal minimum wage, which many fast food workers make, of $7.25 an hour, or $15,000 a year.”
I’ve researched the arguments for and against the minimum wage. There doesn’t seem to be much overlap between the two sides. All of entries in the “yes” column amount to humanitarian explanations. Every reason someone might be against it is strictly pro business.
I understand the short-term costs to raising the minimum wage, but consider this: According to “The World Top Incomes Database,” compiled by Tony Atkinson, Facundo Alvaredo, Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, the share of total income collected by the top 1 percent in the United States is currently at its highest levels since 1928, when it was 19.6 percent. As of 2012, it sat at 19.34 percent, up from 17.47 percent the year before. In the 40 years following World War II, widely regarded as some of the most economically successful in the nation’s history, this figure sat well below 12 percent.
This means there’s a long-term business reason to raise the minimum wage, too: Who will buy the products we create if no one except the wealthy can afford to buy them?
During the Eisenhower administration, the super-rich paid 91 percent of their earnings in income tax. By the end of the Reagan administration, it was down to 28 percent. Now it’s at 39.6 percent. Short of re-creating Ike’s rate — something no one seems willing to do — another corrective is needed.
As the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider, the middle class is all but a memory. We must raise the minimum wage. Seven dollars and 25 cents per hour simply won’t cut it anymore.
Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at twitter.com/robaburg.