A Minimum Wage Problem or a Lifestyle Problem?

Side view of a group of people in a crowd using different brands and colors of mobile phones (cellphones).
Side view of a group of people in a crowd using different brands and colors of mobile phones (cellphones).

As a country, we have shouted, preached, and tried to portray America as the richest country in the world. Over the past several decades, it has become more difficult to claim that. Recent Census Bureau data puts the number of people living in poverty by government standards at almost 47 million citizens. It amounts to nearly 15 percent of our population, which translates into more than one in every six people living below the poverty line.

I understand the problem is complex. Some factors that play a role in this challenge include race, culture, healthcare costs, education, changing family structures, inflation, the global economic influence, and a more high-tech and more complicated economy. Workforce training and retraining has become a focus for every region of our country, as communities scramble to stay healthy and fight poverty.

As communities try to help people lift themselves from poverty, we have seen rumblings across the country blaming the minimum wage. People countrywide are demanding a $15 minimum wage with no consideration for the long-term fallout from such a dramatic change in our wage structure. As a construction company owner for more than 35 years, I cannot remember the last time I paid minimum wage.

The adage that you get what you pay for holds true in the job market. If you pay the worst wages, you get the worst employees. The market should drive the wage. Artificial supports such as the minimum wage decrease the number of jobs and drive up costs, thereby driving up prices. My couple of semesters of economics in college drove that home. The result is that no one wins.

I will throw out an observation that will likely stir the pot and create some angry responses--a piece of the poverty puzzle that is not often discussed plays a significant role. Much of our problem is not a minimum wage problem. An important factor with poverty and many of our country's financial challenges boils down to lifestyle. Conspicuous and competitive consumption has led us down a dangerous road. We confuse our wants with our needs. We mistakenly believe that the road to happiness is found in things. The older I get, the better I understand that is not the case.

Let me paint the picture--
People spend $800 on a phone and pay hundreds of dollars each month for phone and data plans.
People spend $200-$300 each month for cable TV, sports channels, pay-for-view, and high-speed Internet at their homes or apartments.
Ten-year-old kids have phones.
Someone recently told me he paid almost $1,200 for tires and rims for his car.
People are spending more on car payments than many people pay for their homes or apartments.
People pay hundreds of dollars, and sometimes thousands, on tattoos and piercings while struggling to come up with rent money.
A pair of basketball shoes can cost hundreds of dollars.
Concert tickets can cost $300 and more.
Students borrow themselves into a hole to pay for college, instead of pursuing more reasonable options for schooling.

That is just the short list. The consumer is not the only one at fault. Misaligned priorities show up in the business world. The healthcare industry is a great example. I am always amazed that these so-called not-for-profit hospital systems often build structures that put twelfth-century cathedral builders to shame. I had a 10-day stay in a hospital when I had complications after my appendix was removed. The bill was more than $310,000. I could have done without the marble floors if my bill could have been a little more reasonable. I could also have done without huge plasma TV's in all the lobbies if it meant I could afford the plasma I might need. And don't get me started on cancer patients charged $4,000 and more a month for medications.

While in school, I studied marketing and management. At one time, marketing was more about educating consumers about products we needed. The current environment has changed the direction of marketing to that of convincing us our wants are our needs. It often creates an artificial need. The advertising world spends billions trying to manipulate us so we are convinced we need "it all," and having "it all" will make us happy.

To help people out of poverty, we must attack it from different directions. Andrew Carnegie, the nineteenth-century industrialist and philanthropist, said, "You cannot push anyone up a ladder unless he is willing to climb himself." We have to be sure that every effort to combat poverty is based on giving people a hand up and not a handout. If as a country, we could again see the line that delineates the differences between wants and needs, not only would many more people be able to take a step up the ladder, but also true happiness would be within everyone's reach.