Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Working Poor

The Washington Post notes that there is a dispute brewing 20 miles south between Wal-Mart and the D.C. Council after the latter passed a living wage bill requiring $12.50/hour (up from the minimum wage of $8.50) for retailers with $1 billion or more in corporate sales and operating in spaces 75,000 square feet or larger.  Mike DeBonis writes that Wal-Mart has threatened to "abandon plans for three unbuilt stores and 'review the financial and legal implications' of not opening three others under construction."

Alex Barron, regional manager for Wal-Mart, wrote an op-ed noting that the store will bring upwards of 1,800 jobs to the District and calling the living wage bill for large companies "arbitrary discrimination."

The choice boils down to the basic question debated across the political spectrum - what's worse between no job and a job with subsistence wages?

Obviously "no job" is worse, right?  Compared to working 10 hours and having $60 take-home to show for it?  If I may be allowed an instance of hyperbole for purposes of framing the issue - was indentured servitude, working just to pay back a debt that can never be satisfied, better than no job? How much different is it to have the expenses of everyday living (even at the most basic level) exceed the minimum wage, forcing employees to desperately hold on to low-paying jobs?

And for those that balk at imposing wage decisions on employers through legislation, this was what we used to be able to rely on unions to address.  That was "the market at work".  "Together we bargain, divided we beg."  But union-busting of the 1980's was hugely successful at undermining the bargaining power of the working class, soon thereafter referred to as the "working poor".

The question of "no job v. any job" squeezes the desperate.  Their answer must always be "any job", even if that means they continue to live in a shelter, take food from a soup kitchen, and get home only in time to shower and change for the next job.  The "living wage" discussion needs to move beyond the question of whether "no job" is better than "subsistence wages" and on to "What is owed to the 10-hour wage worker?"  If your answer is "nothing" and that the wage market will ultimately provide for hard work, then where is your floor?  Turning the question on my own argument, where is my ceiling?

It is an ugly business to have the government involved in setting wages.  No one likes it.  A much preferable situation would be to incentivize and promote businesses with their primary operations in the United States that provide a living wage through tax credits.  But the problem persists - What do we owe the 10-hour wage worker?

Have a great Thursday doing what you love!