BAY AREA WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT
Both Sides of the Living Wage Debate
I am often asked about whether a $15 minimum wage is a good idea. My response is that there are two sides to the answer to that question.
Side One is probably the argument we hear the most: working people should be able to have a living wage. The Wisconsin United Way ALICE (Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed) report has a lot of good data on the cost of living, but suffice it to say that ALICE determines “Survival Budget” for a family of four (2 adults,
1 infant, 1 preschooler) at $61,620 per year, an hourly wage of $30.81! The bottom
line is that even in NE Wisconsin, the cost of basic necessities has been going up in recent years. Housing costs in particular have been steadily rising for anything most
of us would consider living in. Reliable transportation, vital to keeping a job, is also becoming more challenging. Add in the cost of new “necessities” such as smart phones, cable television, and Internet connection, and it adds up. But try living without those amenities in 2019. The cost of child care is especially draining on a family budget, but do we really want to actively discourage young people from having families? Some countries have amazing subsidies to support young families. Should it not be a moral responsibility to make sure people can afford to live decently if they are working hard and contributing to the economy?
But the Side Two of the discussion is just as vital. Employers are not social service agencies. They are in business to make money. They take the risk of investing in the means of production and in their stores and inventories. Many compete in a regional or even a global economy. Hiring someone is a risk. Unemployment and worker’s compensation costs are especially burdensome to employers, but they take on those costs. For better or for worse, since the New Deal, health care is often tied to employment in the United States, an additional responsibility for employers.
I believe it is incumbent on workers to ask themselves: “What skills do I bring that provide $15 per hour of value to an employer?” Even at a time when some employers would be happy just to have workers show up on time every day and ready to work, skills matter. And skills do not have to mean Associate or Bachelor degrees. There are certifications and online learning opportunities readily available.
Lastly, attitude counts as much as anything. $15 per hour cannot be seen as an entitlement. Employees and employers need to work to together for economic success and the wealth has to be shared to ensure a decent living for everyone.