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The Lame, Classist Argument Against Raising the Minimum Wage

This insistence that laboring people would be harmed by having the wages they demand is not just incorrect, it is paternalistic and condescending.
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(Photo: jeepersmedia/Flickr)

(Photo: jeepersmedia/Flickr)

One of the best ways to awaken apparent concern for the fate of laboring people is to suggest that they be paid more. Since the Fight for 15 campaign aimed at raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour has picked up speed, a host of detractors have claimed that higher wages will hurt the economy, small businesses, and even the more fairly compensated workers themselves.

But a 2010 study on the minimum wage from the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment found that, after controlling for varying local policies, raising the minimum wage does not adversely affect employment. And in mid-September, a Harris Poll conducted on behalf of CareerBuilder found that 64 percent of full-time hiring and human resource managers supported raising the minimum wage and 61 percent supported it going to at least $10 per hour. In the face of such evidence, it becomes clear that it is often personal and political views on the value of labor that are leading the conversation more than anything else.

In the most recent Republican presidential debate, candidate Ben Carson said, “Every time we raise the minimum wage, the number of jobless people increases.” But numerous studies have demonstrated that, despite claims that businesses will opt for self-service kiosks or foregoing employees altogether, raising the minimum wage does not lead to unemployment. Yet the hand wringing persists. Donald Trump argued, “People have to go out, they have to work really hard and have to get into that upper stratum.” A close look at these arguments demonstrates that, perhaps more pernicious than the belief that low wages are a form of protection against automation, is the belief that these wages are an indication of the lack of skills or experience involved in performing them.

The idea that management will cooperate with labor unless it is forced to do so would be quaint if it weren’t so responsible for historical failures to pay people decently.

When Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his support for increasing the minimum wage in New York State to $15 per hour over the next six years and his plan to raise state employees’ wages to $15 per hour even sooner, detractors were quick to argue that such changes would be dangerous for business. In a prepared statement, the International Franchise Association said, “Applying a new mandatory minimum wage increase to a narrow group of businesses creates an un-level playing field for owners that provide important entry level jobs and valuable experience for millions of workers across the state of New York.” In what is a predictable tone of feigned concern, commentators on the Cuomo plan worried that, if the increase occurs, self-service kiosks would simply replace low-wage workers and that better-educated or more-skilled workers would resent the move.

“A minimum wage of $15.00 per hour says to employers that it is illegal to pay less than that even if a prospective worker would be glad to get it,” writes economist Bob McTeer in Forbes. That McTeer mistakes worker desperation for worker gladness or labor justice is indicative of the kind of flawed logic that assumes a zero-sum game when it comes to workers’ wages.

“The Cuomo proposal would not likely cause mass layoffs in minimum wage industries. What it would likely do is slow the pace of new hiring and increase employer incentives to economize on labor through new technology or otherwise. The first rung on the job ladder would become out of reach for the marginal worker the higher minimum is intended to help,” McTeer writes, essentially advocating for business owners to pick up their ball and go home if their demands about wages are not met entirely.

Megan McArdle at Bloomberg View argues similarly: “People who were looking at opening a fast food or retail or low-wage manufacturing concern will run the numbers and decide that the potential profits can't justify the risk of some operations. Some folks who have been in the business for a while will conclude that with reduced profits, it's no longer worth putting their hours into the business, so they'll close the business and retire or do something else.” These arguments all elevate the entrepreneurial ambitions of small business owners over and above the daily needs of the much larger and less politically powerful class of workers that might work for them.

After a town hall meeting in New Hampshire, Ohio Governor John Kasich remarked on the potential for a federal increase in the minimum wage to hurt high-skilled workers. "Make sure that it makes sense between management and labor ... so we don’t have the unintended consequences of throwing the least-skilled people out of work, and we create morale problems with people who are more skilled who feel they’re not appreciated it [sic]," Kasich told the crowd in early September.

The idea that management will cooperate with labor unless it is forced to do so would be quaint if it weren’t so responsible for historical failures to pay people decently. It should be alarming but isn’t any longer that a politician can say that a “more skilled” worker ought to be appreciated more than their lower-skilled counterparts. The idea that more-skilled people would have a legitimate right to resentment of their counterparts on the less skilled end of the spectrum speaks volumes about how we de-value the work at the bottom of the wage ladder. What is “more skilled,” if not code for “earned through institutional validation”?

There is also a reliably angry subset of the general population that emerges to disparage low-wage workers for the audacity to demand a living wage. They smirk at the ease of flipping burgers and operating a cash register, arguing that customer service jobs are hardly worth more than a pittance and their open scorn. These thoughts are generally relegated to comments sections and Twitter, where people have been tweeting such choice sentiments as: “Really? This #FightFor15 bullshit is trending again? Working a cash register isn't a valuable skill that commands $15/hr. Anyone can do it.” And: “This fight for 15 thing is stupid. Stop bitching and go get a real job if you want 15$ an hour you lazy fucks.” Ah yes, real jobs. As opposed to those pretend jobs where people are paid in Monopoly money and the labor exerted is just fun and games!

What these detractors miss is that the most critical component of customer service jobs is not doing the actual service but dealing with the customer. Handling customers requires skills that we reward with higher wages in numerous sectors outside of food service and retail. Receptionists meet and greet customers and manage similarly simple digital systems to manage schedules and other company affairs. There are customer service roles in bank branches that similarly require minimal engagement with technology and maximum engagement with people. But these jobs often require ceremonial educational degrees that retail and food service don’t. Considering these jobs “unskilled” when they take place in other contexts is a way of de-valuing labor that is only accessible to people with fewer socioeconomic and educational opportunities.

When making claims about the lower value of these skills is not enough, opponents of increased wages turn to robot scare tactics. The automation bogeyman threatens to replace all workers with robots and self-service kiosks if they expect higher wages. And yes, business owners are indeed welcome to do just that. But what cannot be ignored is that self-service is not even an especially viable alternative to human employees. “Stores are essentially asking customers who weren’t trained to do this work to take on the task,” Ryan Buell, assistant professor at the Harvard Business School, told Harvard Business Review earlier this year. He explains that there have been some advantages such as getting people to spend more money with self-service because they are less embarrassed to make certain purchases when not facing a human cashier. Customer satisfaction, however, has been known to go down and costs have been known to go up with the introduction of several automated services. Expensive robots could do a lot of our jobs in white-collar industries too, but white-collar employees are not generally the targets of such condescending rants.

This insistence that laboring people would be harmed by having the wages they demand because of businesses closing down entirely is not just incorrect, it is paternalistic and condescending. These workers are out in the streets declaring that they would benefit from higher wages and pundits sit around and essentially say, “No dear, no you wouldn’t.”

One doesn’t need a degree in economics to know that workers would benefit from higher wages. And as high and mighty as higher-wage workers get about the skills of their own jobs, the reality is that most of them wouldn’t last a day in low-wage customer service, because it requires a set of skills and characteristics that are honed outside the hallowed halls of higher education and corporate offices. Patience, diffusing conflict, and active listening are all valuable skills that the American economy has been massively undervaluing for too long.

“If you think about the places where we’re truly loyal, these are often places where we’ve had the opportunity to develop a relationship, right?” Buell says. “So when you walk into a Starbucks you frequent, the baristas will know you by name and they’ll know what drink you want. You feel important. You feel special.” Perhaps baristas and clerks are so adept at doing the job of making us feel special that we’ve failed to see how valuable their work is. It deserves more than feigned acknowledgement from commentators too fragile to recognize their work isn’t important at all.