By Ashley Herzog
I was seventeen years old when I wrote a school essay entitled “The correct minimum wage: $0.00.” Back then, I was a budding libertarian, and I was proud of that assignment. I explained my opposition to a government-mandated minimum wage with arguments that many economic conservatives consider hard fact: Minimum wage increases lead to unemployment. They force business owners to pay unskilled laborers more than they’re worth. And besides teens and secondary-wage earners, who really works for the bare minimum, anyway?
The partisan battle over minimum-wage laws was the last thing on my mind when I took a job in a chain restaurant last June. I’d held a few after-school jobs as a teen, but the restaurant job was meant to be my first serious foray into the working world.
I liked my job immediately, especially my co-workers: some were single moms, some were students, and others were second-wage earners, supplementing a spouse’s meager income.
At first, our conversations were limited to the usual small talk about movies, celebrities, and workplace gossip. But as the weeks wore on, I was able to piece together the stories of my new friends’ lives. Although each one was unique, they had a common theme: money was a problem.
They used code words to describe money troubles and the public assistance they needed to circumvent them. When I overheard one waitress talking about her “financial aid,” I asked where she went to college. She reluctantly admitted that “financial aid” was a euphemism for food stamps -- and she’d needed them ever since her husband lost his job.
Relying on food stamps isn’t a worst-case scenario in the world of low-wage work. Another young waitress confessed that she was living in a motel because she couldn’t make the last month’s rent. After swearing me to secrecy, she resolved to find a new apartment within a week -- as long as she could afford the security deposit.
Needless to say, my view of laissez-faire capitalism was shaken. Libertarian philosophy promised that an unbridled free market would provide everything people needed, as long as they worked hard enough. So how could it be that people working two or three jobs, averaging seven to eight dollars an hour, could barely afford necessities like food and housing?
When I asked a co-worker if she had health insurance, she looked at me as if I were crazy. It was then that I uttered the words I never thought I’d say: “Well, maybe they should raise the minimum wage.”
But like many others, she doubted that “they” were really concerned about her. She told me she refused to vote for Democrats or Republicans, “Because what do those assholes know about being poor?”
A few weeks later, I quit that job and returned to college, where I’m again shielded from the realities of low-wage life. I sit in classes where middle-class students and tenured professors debate the minimum wage in theoretical terms. Sometimes I think back to the question my co-worker posed: “What do they know about being poor?”
The answer, for many of us, is not much. The working poor are relatively easy to ignore. They aren’t interviewed on nightly newscasts. They don’t write op-eds for The New York Times. In many cases, they don’t even vote. People who work for wages just above the minimum typically fly under society’s radar -- until financial disaster strikes and they turn to government programs for help. It is then that they are chastised for their lack of self-reliance and initiative.
Maybe in some cases a low-wage job is the first step out of poverty. Of course, most people who have time to philosophize about the minimum wage will never find out for themselves.