By Caroline Hsu
Though many of us don’t notice it, there’s a crisis brewing surrounding minimum wage and near-minimum wage jobs in the United States. Retail workers, food service employees, janitors, delivery drivers, and caregivers are among the lowest-paid employees in the United States, despite the fact that their work forms the backbone of modern American society. Because their jobs don’t necessarily require very much training or prior education, their labor is both undervalued and underpaid. The fight to raise the minimum wage is borne out of the idea that all employees should earn enough to support themselves and their dependents, regardless of their age, education level, or amount of job training. The work that minimum wage employees do ensures that society as we know it functions smoothly, and the least we can do as American citizens is to fight for business owners and corporations to compensate them fairly for their labor.
In 2017, about 23.2 million people earned minimum or near-minimum wages, which fall anywhere between the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour and $10.10 an hour. Another 1.8 million people earned less than the federal minimum wage per hour. (This is possible for employees who earn tips, full-time students enrolled in work-study programs, and certain workers with disabilities.) The food service industry employs the most minimum wage, below-minimum wage, and near-minimum wage employees, but industries like sales, caregiving, administrative support, janitorial services, and transportation also employ hundreds of thousands of minimum wage employees.
What are the overall demographics of minimum wage employees? About half of minimum wage employees in the US are aged 16 to 24. Over three-quarters of minimum wage employees are white. 20% have not finished high school. 36% have earned a high school diploma or GED. 37% have some form of college education, but have not earned a bachelor’s degree. From these statistics, we can surmise that the average minimum wage employee in the US is relatively young, white, and has not pursued any form of higher education after high school.
The federal minimum wage in the United States has been set at $7.25 an hour since 2009. This current rate actually has less purchasing power than previous federal minimum wages. Adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage’s purchasing power was highest in 1968, when it was equivalent to about $8.68 per hour in 2016 dollars. Most states and territories have established legislation that sets their own minimum wages, which means that many minimum wage workers in the US are able to earn slightly more than the federal rate, ranging anywhere from $7.50 to $11.50 per hour. At first glance, this sounds like good news, but the actual state of minimum wage in the US is not quite that simple. Among countries with a comparable GDP per capita, the United States pays its minimum wage employees abnormally poorly. According to the Economist, if the federal minimum wage in the US were proportional to the federal minimum wages in similarly wealthy countries, all American minimum wage employees could expect to earn about $12 per hour.
Even if the US were to raise the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour, which is highly unlikely due to current Republican control of Congress, those wages still would not be enough to allow many employees to support themselves and their families. MIT economics professor Amy Glasmeier runs a US living wage calculator, which estimates the minimum income that a family with two working parents and two children would need to survive in the US without relying on public assistance or holding multiple jobs. This calculation takes into account housing, food, medical care, childcare, and transportation. As of 2015, the living wage in the United States for a family of four is $15.12 per hour, which is significantly higher than even the most generous of state minimum wages. In order for a single parent with two children working a federal minimum wage job to survive without public assistance, they would have to work 139 hours per week. Just for comparison, the standard for full-time employment in the United States is 40 hours per week.
Because many hourly-wage jobs just don’t pay enough to support families, a significant number of hourly employees are forced to take on multiple jobs. In September of 2018, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that approximately 7.7 million workers held multiple jobs, an alarmingly high rate that hasn’t been seen since the mid-1990s. However, the actual number of multiple job-holders is likely even higher than the statistics reported by the Department of Labor. Though they may not realize it, wage or salary employees who also run a part-time, self-employed business also count as multiple job holders. An indeterminate number of multiple job holders may be withholding that information from the federal government so that their secondary income remains untaxed.
Clearly, the state of the American minimum wage is so dire that many hourly employees are forced to rely on public assistance or additional jobs just to make ends meet. However, there is progress being made on state, local, and corporate levels. In early 2018, 18 different states began to increase minimum wage rates by about $1 per hour, including Maine, Colorado, Hawaii, and Washington state. Additionally, the state of California and New York City have both announced that they will be raising their minimum wages to $15 over the next 5 years. Finally, companies like Amazon, Walmart, and Target have recently announced increases in their corporate minimum wage regulations for part-time, full-time, and seasonal employees. Important progress is definitely being made in the fight for a higher minimum wage on both the political and corporate level, but many skeptics still oppose the raising of wage floors.
Although the debate surrounding minimum wage is incredibly multifaceted, with factors including national employment rates, commodity prices, economic vitality, inflation, racial and gender equality, and tax rates, the heart of the argument for a higher minimum wage is empathy. There is an intense stigma against minimum wage jobs and the people who work them. For many people, entry-level, minimum wage jobs are generally considered to have little societal value. Minimum wage jobs are often characterized as temporary summer work for young high school or college students looking to earn a little spending money. Otherwise, they’re considered to be bottom-of-the-barrel employment for the lazy, unintelligent, and unmotivated. These generalizations do a disservice to the vast majority of minimum wage employees, who are just as diligent and hardworking as any salary-earner.
Anyone who has ever worked a minimum wage job, even temporarily, can tell you that the daily demands of the food service, retail, caregiving, janitorial, and transportation industries are just as demanding, if not more taxing, than a 9-to-5 office job. Minimum wage employees are often asked to work 6 to 14-hour shifts every day of the week, with little or no opportunities for a break. For the duration of their shifts, cashiers, food service workers, and retail associates are frequently forbidden from sitting down, which means that they must remain on their feet for hours on end. Minimum wage workers endure verbal abuse and harassment from entitled customers, physically uncomfortable working environments with insufficient heating or air conditioning, and exposure to unclean or unsanitary substances on a day-to-day basis. Their work is the foundation for the fast food industry, the movie business, the brick-and-mortar retail industry. Minimum wage workers clean up after our messes, deliver our packages, care for our children and elders, and prepare our food. And yet, despite the fact these jobs form the backbone of our society, the people who hold them are not even paid a living wage.
If you’re interested in joining the fight for a $15 minimum wage, even if you’re not a minimum wage employee yourself, there are several ways you can get involved. First, do your research into political candidates at the local, state, and federal levels who support increasing the minimum wage. If you’re able, donate or volunteer for their campaigns. At the very least, do your civic duty and vote! Additionally, try to support small businesses and larger companies that have demonstrated a sustained commitment to paying their employees fairly. Look into the wage policies of the businesses you frequent. If possible, try to support as many businesses that pay a living wage as you can. Although these steps might seem small and ineffectual, they can make a huge difference in convincing corporations and legislators to start paying hourly employees fairly!