Monday, September 25, 2006

Issue 2: YES, For Crying Out Loud, Let's Pay a Halfway Decent Minimum Wage


The current minimum wage in Ohio is $5.15 per hour. Issue 2, backed by organizations like Ohioans for a Fair Minimum Wage, proposes an amendment to the Ohio constitution that would raise this to $6.85 per hour.

An amendment seems a cumbersome way to accomplish this. But the Republican-controlled Ohio General Assembly couldn't be bothered to do the job in a more elegant fashion. In fact, it raised Ohio’s appalling $4.25 minimum wage to a slightly less appalling $5.15 only this year -- and then largely in hopes of heading off this ballot initiative, not from any actual concern for the working poor.

And if I were to ask why the lack of concern, my guess is that I'd get a list of condescending reasons as long as my arm about why what appears to be a transparent shafting of the working poor is really a hard-headed, realistic, yea, noble effort to keep jobs in Ohio.

Unlike most people who maintain political blogs, I don't think of myself as a political junkie or pundit. I'm basically just a voter. This blog is a tool by which to become a more responsible voter. To call it anything more would be kidding myself and, well, pretty much the rest of you.

In that regard, the amount I don't know about politics and public policy literally fills volumes.

On the other hand, I do know something about basic fairness and human nature.

It is basic fairness to pay someone a living wage for a full-time job. I'm better educated than most Americans. I've had the good fortune to land a job I like, that has good benefits, and that pays, by my standards anyway, a decent salary. But despite my good education, I can't understand how the job I do makes me, as an American citizen, any better than someone less educated than I am who is stuck with a job that he may not like, with few if any benefits, yet who puts in a solid 40-hour work week. I don't see why such a person should do that and still live in poverty.

It is human nature to pay as little as possible for a given good or service. And if you're a businessman, that often includes labor.It is also human nature to rationalize one's choices, and I can tell that if I dived into the literature opposing a hike in the minimum wage, I would find no end of tough-minded eloquence explaining to clueless Ivory Tower me why my sense of basic fairness is really just soft-headed sentimentalism. And I could reply that as a conservative in the traditional sense of the term, I object to having human relationships so sweepingly mediated by money. And you could stare at me blankly.

But we don't need to do that. You can just explain to me what makes this fair:

I just ran a check of the hourly wage I received for the first job I ever held, adjusted for inflation. I was fifteen years old; the year was 1975; the job involved shelving books at the Westerville Public Library. The skill involved was an ability to grasp the Dewey Decimal System which, trust me, is within the abilities of your average ten-year old.

The pay was $2.00 an hour, which in 1975 was subminimum wage. (The statutary minimum wage was actually 2.10/hour, raised to $2.30/hour in 1976.)

Adjusted to 2005 dollars, the wage I received for my very first job was $7.49 an hour. Had I received the 1975 minimum wage, it would have been $7.87 an hour, and in 1976 that would have jumped to $8.61 an hour. Essentially, in economic terms it was better to be a pimply-faced, living-with-mom-and-dad teenager in Ohio in 1975 than it is to be an on-your-own adult Ohioan in 2006.

I only worked about 10 or 15 hours a week, but let's say I put in 40 hours a week at $2.00 an hour. Adjusted to 2005 dollars, that would have given me an annual income of $14,380.80 -- not great, but well over the federal poverty line for a single individual living in the continental U.S. ($9,800 per year), and actually enough to support one dependent ($13,200 per year).

In contrast, the State of Ohio thinks it's perfectly fine for an employee to work 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, and earn $10,712. That's above the federal poverty line for a single person, I grant you, but if you've got one dependent -- a kid, an elderly parent, a spouse who doesn't work -- you're almost $2,500 below the poverty line. A lot of adults fit that description. (And by the way, 74 percent of those receiving minimum wage in Ohio are adults.)

Raising the state minimum wage to $6.85 an hour will not exactly usher in the millenium. It comes to $14,248 -- not quite as good as I would have made had I quit high school in 1975 and gone to work full-time as a library page, but not the scandal we presently pretend is just.

What absolutely kills me are the reasons trotted forth for opposing Issue 2:

The National Federation of Independent Business-Ohio, the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants and other groups under the banner of Ohioans to Protect Personal Privacy argue that the proposed amendment would impose onerous record-keeping requirements on businesses and endanger the privacy of millions of people in the state.

They say it could result in the release of a flood of payroll records containing individuals’ pay rates, home addresses and other sensitive information.

"Every person in this state ought to be concerned about their private records getting into the public domain," said Ty R. Pine, executive director of the business federation.

What crap. I've read the issue in all its clunky glory and those objections are horseshit. But if those objections reflect the only real problem, why don't these business organizations give the General Assembly a green light to draft and pass a good, rigorous state law? That would assuredly be better than trying to accomplish this objective by amending the Ohio constitution. In fact, the only thing worse than achieving this objection through constitutional amendment would be to continue to let poor Ohioans work as hard as the rest of us and still be poor.

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