We Owe Minimum Wage Workers Our Votes

Our low minimum wage is a massive wealth transfer that goes in the wrong direction.

It’s inevitable that you’ll spend the next 36 hours—the final hours before we pick our president—panicking.

But I think it’s productive to diversify your panic, and there are so many important things worth worrying about! If the Senate doesn’t turn blue, we probably won’t have a fully-functioning Supreme Court for at least another four years. With five states voting on full-scale marijuana legalization, this could be the year that makes or breaks that fight. And a literal former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan is on the ballot for federal office in Louisiana.

Here’s something else to consider: In cost-of-living terms, the federal minimum wage peaked in 1968. In lieu of federal cost-of-living adjustments, the states have begun to take things into their own hands—where thirty years ago only one state, Alaska, had a local minimum wage that exceeded the federal standard, over half do today.

During the last major election, in 2014, five state electorates voted on minimum wage increase—Illinois, Alaska, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Arkansas. Aside from Illinois, all of these states’ local governments were controlled by the Republican Party, which openly opposed the proposed increases.

All five ballot initiatives passed anyway.

Now, minimum wage activists are back and looking for more wins—this time in Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and Washington.

Arizona, Colorado, and Maine’s measures all propose a $12 hourly wage, with Arizona’s also creating a minimum number of earned sick days and Maine’s notably applying to tipped workers. Washington’s Initiative 1433 would set a minimum wage of $13.50 and require earned sick leave. All have a decent chance of passing.

Increasing the minimum wage feels like a complicated issue, with lots of contradictory input from economists and lots of smoke blown about job creation and the value of unskilled work.

But I argue that, ultimately, the need for higher minimum wages rests on a pretty simple foundation.

Let’s work within the assumptions of capitalism for a moment: If a wage is the rent one pays for a human, then there’s a floor on wages. That floor is the cost of a human.

If you are going to rent a human full-time, then you need to pay that human enough to live at least at the poverty line. (I’m making another assumption here, which is that you’re not a f*cking a**hole who believes that some people deserve to live in poverty.)

That’s it. Want a human worker? Pay the price of human life. A living wage.

When companies don’t pay the basic, minimum cost of human life to their human workers, taxpayers pick up the tab. While only a quarter of workers are enrolled in one or more public assistance programs, over half of fast food workers are—resulting in a net cost to the American taxpayer of $7 billion each year in food, housing, and healthcare costs that should be paid, in the form of wages, by fast food companies.

In the words of one Bloomberg columnist, our low minimum wage is a massive “wealth transfer [that] goes in the wrong direction: from taxpayers to the owners of fast-food outlets.”

And that’s just fast food.

The consequences of that institutionalized wealth transfer are more than economic. There are 2.8 million single parents working minimum wage jobs in the United States, and almost a quarter of all minimum wage workers have children. It’s hard not to see a relationship between this and our dubious distinction as the country with one of the highest child poverty rates in the developed world—Turkish, Romanian, and Chilean children are all less likely, on average, to grow up in poverty than their American counterparts.

Every child who grows up in poverty has a long-term, negative effect on this country, in both moral and practical terms. And it begins, in many cases, with a parent who has been cheated by an employer who demands all of their time but doesn’t compensate for all of their expenses.

We can fight about how localized the minimum wage ought to be, given regional differences in cost-of-living. You can tell me that you think a living wage isn’t as effective a policy as an increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit or a Universal Basic Income. (I respect this opinion, but only one type of proposal is on the ballot on Tuesday, and something must be done in the immediate future to improve wages for workers at the lowest rungs of the ladder.)

But don’t give me some argument about minimum wage workers not deserving a living wage or businesses not being obligated to pay it. They do, and they are.

And we owe minimum wage workers our votes.