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Raising the minimum wage is adding a lot of political sanctimony to the gross national product, but the justice and good it would do are exaggerated.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, less than 5 percent of the labor force is earning minimum wage or less, half of minimum wage earners are under 25, and many of those are just teenagers in entry-level jobs living with parents in homes far above the poverty line.
But the principle being proclaimed by many advocates of raising the minimum wage, like state Sen. Catherine Osten, D-Sprague - that it should be high enough, a "living wage," to enable its earner to support a family - is ridiculous and insulting. For such a principle equates unskilled work with skilled work. It holds that someone who can do no more than hand fast food out the drive-through window should be able to command the services of the carpenters who build housing, the mechanics who repair cars, the doctors and nurses who treat illness, and so forth - people who took the trouble to make themselves far more useful.
That principle would tell people that their wages should be determined not by what they produce but by what they want.
And that principle would tell people who learn job skills that they're wasting their time; it would even blame and tax them for the poverty of the unskilled.
That doesn't mean that government should do nothing to increase incomes. To the contrary, reversing the long decline in incomes should be government's most urgent objective. But this requires an unpleasant acknowledgment about poverty - that much is self-inflicted and the consequence of mistaken government welfare and education policy.
The migration of manufacturing jobs to the developing world has required the labor force here to adjust, and as a recent report in the New Haven Register showed, many people have not adjusted. The Register marveled at the growing disparity in incomes in New Haven between people employed in education, medicine, and science and people doing menial work, between the skilled and unskilled.
Predictably enough, many people living in poverty in New Haven are women with plenty of children but no husbands and no job skills. Government provides enough in welfare benefits to sustain them that way and push their children into that lifestyle. Some research lately has found that the full range of welfare benefits provides more income to a household than is earned by a household whose breadwinners earn much more than minimum wage. Such policy provides little incentive to learn job skills and helps to explain the country's sharply declining labor participation rate.
While there is much unemployment in Connecticut, employers still complain about the difficulty of finding skilled workers, a complaint acknowledged even by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a leading advocate of raising the minimum wage. This complaint was validated a few years ago when a state government survey found that nearly 70 percent of freshmen in state colleges had not mastered high school work but had been graduated anyway in accordance with Connecticut's policy of educational inflation and social promotion.
Government always could spend its own money boosting the income of the poor. That's what the earned income tax credit is about. If government could ever stand up to the public-employee unions, it could give temporary jobs to the long-term unemployed.
And government could reduce costs for the working class and increase jobs and competition in the economy by enforcing antitrust law. Just by itself Comcast's pending acquisition of Time Warner Cable may raise cable television and Internet service rates enough to siphon away much of any minimum wage increase.
But being as much the tools of big money as Republicans are, Democrats seem to favor the minimum wage issue precisely because of its demagogic triviality.