Minimum Wage: Rare Case of Moral Consensus

TheoPol is on hiatus, as its author explores other projects.

Picture a world where politics is not so polarized. Imagine that the American people are flat out in favor of a plan that could lift more than a million of their neighbors out of poverty. And they’re arriving at this position not out of narrow self-interests—most Americans aren’t poor—but for essentially moral reasons. Actually, not much imagination is required. At least not when it comes to public opinion on a perennial issue: the minimum wage.

For decades, polling has shown support for a higher minimum wage ranging somewhere between unambiguous and unbelievable. In November, a Gallup survey found that 76 percent of the people would vote for a hypothetical national referendum lifting the bottom wage to $9 an hour. That’s $1.75 more than the current federal minimum; it would also be more than any increase ever passed by Congress. Last summer, a less independent poll conducted by Democratic-leaning Hart Research Associates found eight in ten Americans flocking behind a $10.10 per-hour minimum wage.

Try to identify a considerable subgroup of American opinion that’s content with the $7.25 regime. You’d think, for example, that self-identified Republicans would want to either freeze the wage or tamp it down. You would be mistaken, according to the Gallup breakdown: Republicans favored the $1.75 hike by an unmistakable 58-39 percent margin. Meanwhile, in a previous Gallup poll, the support among self-identified “moderates” was rather immoderate (75 percent).

Look at it from the other end. Those who want to hold down the minimum wage are a highly distinct opinion group in American politics. They’re of a size with the percentage of Americans who, according to other polling, are certain that aliens from outer space have visited the earth, and yet, they predominate on this issue, certainly at the national level. There hasn’t been a raise in the federal minimum wage since 2009, and few are betting heavily on the Fair Minimum Wage Act in the U.S. House of Representatives, which calls for a $10.10 minimum in three, 95-cent strides over the next three years. Just looking at the numbers, it’s as if UFO believers were dictating America’s air defense strategy.

Not that you have to be nuts to balk at a minimum wage.

Arriving at a dollars-and-cents figure will always involve a prudential judgment about how high the wage could go before it burdens hiring. And there’s plenty of room for debate over whether the legislated minimum should resemble a “living wage,” enough to adequately support a family. Even Msgr. John A. Ryan, the pioneering American Catholic progressive, did not go to that length in his classic 1906 study A Living Wage. Ryan envisioned a statutory minimum wage (unlegislated nationally until 32 years later) that would fall shy of a decent family-supporting income. Filling the gaps would be social insurance policies; prime examples today include Medicare and the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-wage workers.

But those are economic policy considerations. The politics of the minimum wage is a question of its own that begs attention.

Over the past few decades, public support for that policy has soared even as the value of the pay has sunk. By all accounts, if the minimum wage had merely kept pace with inflation since the late 1960s, it would be perched at well over $10 an hour today. What conclusions ought to be drawn from this thwarting of the public’s resolve? What does it say about the state of our democracy and the relations of power in our society?

A relatively benign conclusion might be that Americans aren’t particularly animated in their advocacy of a minimum-wage upgrade. In other words, the opponents may be a small choir drowning out the congregation, but that’s because the congregants aren’t trying hard to lift up their voices. That’s bound to be partly true in many policy debates including perhaps this one, but it’s equally true that those in the choir lofts of the U.S. economy have extraordinary means to project their voices, especially at a time when money is talking more loudly in politics than it has in almost a century. Lobbyists for trade groups such as National Restaurant Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce may have relatively few kindred spirits, on this question, but they’re heard above all in Congress.

A (Martin Luther) King’s Wage

The more likely conclusion is less benign: As wealth has consolidated into fewer hands, so has the power to overrule the public on bread-and-butter issues.

Those of us who subscribe to religious social teaching often speak of the need to nurture a moral consensus on matters affecting the common good. That laudable goal, however, is beside the point when it comes to the minimum wage (and some other issues of economic fairness, such as restoring the Clinton-era tax rates on the highest incomes). And that’s because we already have such a convergence.

The impulse behind the minimum-wage consensus is a moral one, in that it’s not rooted plainly in self-interests: boosting the bottom wage would give no direct lift to most Americans. They would seem to agree with Martin Luther King: “There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American [worker] … ” But the political system today is unable to process this conviction. The minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, remains far lower than it was when King fell to the assassin’s bullet in 1968.

It’s clear that public sentiment in favor of a higher minimum wage is powerful. The problem seems to be that the American people aren’t. …read more

The Moral Minimum: Part 2

Filed under the heading of everybody-and-his-aunt-wants-a-higher-minimum-wage:

Madeline Janis, on "Moyers & Company"

Madeline Janis, on “Moyers & Company”

And we kept seeing this, something that we thought was wrong. We had to be in an Alice in Wonderland story or something. We would see a “Romney for President” sign and a pro-Tea Party for Congress and “Yes on the Living Wage,” all on the same lawn. And that’s because the idea of a living wage for people and their neighbors to be able to spend money in local stores resonated.

Madeline Janis made this comment in a Bill Moyers PBS interview earlier this month. She led a campaign in Long Beach, California, to enact a startling $13-an-hour minimum wage—specifically for hotel workers in that city. That’s almost six dollars above the $7.25 per hour federal minimum. The measure appeared on the ballot last November and passed easily with 63 percent of the vote.

In the interview, Janis’s main point was that small business owners rallied behind the voter referendum. Their reasoning was, “We want more customers. We want these hotel workers to be able to buy our clothes and our food,” as she related.

But surely, this is an anomaly. Or is it? Small business owners are typically cast as dogged opponents of the minimum wage. Is it possible that most are actually in favor of jacking up the minimum?

It’s more than possible.

Late last month, the organization Small Business Majority released the results of a national poll on raising the minimum wage. Small business owners were asked whether they agree or disagree with the following statement:

Increasing the minimum wage will help the economy because the people with the lowest incomes are the most likely to spend any pay increases buying necessities they could not afford before, which will boost sales at businesses. This will increase the customer demand that businesses need to retain or hire more employees.

Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of those surveyed agreed with this boilerplate case for a more generous minimum wage. What’s more, 67 percent of these business owners agreed with the idea of taking a higher minimum (a dollar figure wasn’t specified) and “adjusting it yearly to keep pace with inflation.”

You might ask: Was the polling sample skewed toward bleeding-heart-liberals, the kind who set up shop in hip districts of Boston and southern California? It doesn’t seem that way. Forty-six percent of the respondents identified themselves as Republican, 35 percent as Democrat, and 11 percent as independent.

People like me often talk about the need to nurture a moral consensus on important questions facing our society. But I find it hard to talk that way, when it comes to the minimum wage. And that’s because we already have a moral consensus on that issue. (See my previous post, on public opinion.)

Apparently, most Americans agree pretty much with Martin Luther King: “There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American [worker] … ” But for some reason, our political system today is unable to process this conviction. The minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, remains lower than it was when King fell to the assassin’s bullet in 1968. Special interests are trumping national consensus.

It’s clear that public sentiment in favor of a higher minimum wage is powerful. The problem is that the American people aren’t.

TheoPol will skip the week of Memorial Day and resume the following week. …read more

The Moral Minimum: Part 1

Minimum wageIf the word “democracy” means anything, it means that the people usually wind up getting their way—after careful deliberation by representative bodies and broad public debate. Much has been made of the fact that the American people haven’t gotten their way lately with regard to gun control. Recent polls indicated that nearly 90 percent of Americans thought universal background checks were a sensible idea, but 54 members of the U.S. Senate disagreed. As a result, a modest bill to that effect was gunned down.

Gun control is probably not the most eye-raising case of public sentiment ignored, however. That distinction might well go to a bread-and-butter issue: the minimum wage.

The people began favoring stricter gun laws only recently, in the wake of the Newtown massacre, and it appears the trend is already letting up. On the other hand, for decades polling has shown support for a higher minimum wage rocketing somewhere between 70 and 90 percent, depending on factors including the size of the raise. Americans aren’t polarized on this issue; the politicians are.

In March, a Gallup poll found that 71 percent of the people favored President Obama’s proposal to lift the bottom wage to $9 an hour. That’s $1.75 more than the current federal minimum; it would also be the largest increase ever passed by Congress. Past polling indicates that if people were simply being asked whether they support an unspecified increase in the minimum, or a somewhat lesser amount, the backing would be even stronger.

50 Percent of Republicans

Try to identify a single major subgroup of Americans that doesn’t want to see the minimum wage go up.

You’d think, for example, that self-identified conservatives would be pretty down on the idea. They aren’t, according to the Gallup survey. They favored the $1.75 hike by a clean 54-44 percent margin. Meanwhile the support among self-identified “moderates” was rather immoderate (75 percent). Republicans were the only subgroup that didn’t give clear majority support to the proposal—but even they backed it by a plurality, 50-48 percent.

And keep in mind that we’re talking about a relatively big jump for the minimum wage. The numbers, again, would undoubtedly be higher if the boost were smaller. Very, very few people would be opposed to a raise, in principle.

There appears to be a common moral sense among Americans that a full-time wage shouldn’t keep a family in poverty; it should get a family out of poverty. Whether the federal minimum wage is the only way to do that is, of course, debatable (there’s also the Earned Income Tax Credit, for instance). In any event, Obama’s $9 an hour wouldn’t get a family there. It would deliver a $3,000 a year raise to minimum wage workers, a bump up to $18,000 a year. That’s more than four thousand dollars below the official (and badly outdated) federal poverty line for a family of four.

And that’s why liberal Democrats recently pushed a bill that would have ramped up the minimum to $10.10 an hour by 2015. Even that higher amount is quite a bit lower than what the minimum wage would be today if it had merely kept up with inflation since the late 1960s. There were no takers, however, on the other side of the aisle.

On March 15, Republicans in the House of Representatives unanimously rejected the $10.10 proposal. Six Democrats joined them, in voting it down 233-184. If there’s a common moral sense on this issue, it doesn’t seem to be broadly shared in Congress.

Note: for Part 2, go here. …read more

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