In a recent discussion on National Public Radio, in regard to the minimum wage for fast food workers, one of the parties noted that her teenaged son had worked for minimum wage while flipping burgers during the previous summer. She said, “no one is going to pay my son 15 dollars an hour.” Probably not. But the minimum wage debate isn’t about what we should pay teenagers who are working for spending money or to save for college.
Many of the people employed today at fast food and other low-wage jobs are adult heads of household who are struggling to support families. They live a contemporary version of the American sweatshop. Many work through the night. They try to hold on to two or three part-time jobs with unpredictable, often conflicting, schedules.
Racing from job to job to job does not allow enough time for a decent night’s sleep or a relaxing meal, not to mention quality family time. Parents worry about leaving their kids with whoever might be willing to babysit during the weekend, late at night, or in the very early morning while they are away working a Fryolator, running a cash register, stocking shelves or cleaning rooms. They are unable to count on consistent hours, and thus cannot create reliable household budgets. They struggle to feed their children, keep the lights on and avoid being thrown out in the streets. They work long and hard in exchange for paltry compensation with no health care benefits. It is dehumanizing and unacceptable.
The debate around minimum wage is about more than money. It’s about our collective future. It’s about our children, about preparing the next generation to be self-sufficient, competent, contributing members of society. It’s about keeping our young ones safe and providing conditions that foster learning. Our current economic system is breeding a dismal future in which the owners of mega corporations are reaping vast profits while their low level employees are scrambling to keep home and hearth together. Workers who have to put in so many hours are not available to help their kids with homework, to listen to their challenges and struggles, to provide guidance, encouragement or even basic protection. Children of these workers can’t concentrate on their schoolwork because they are often hungry, alone, and very aware of the tenuousness of their housing. We can do better.
We should consider a tiered wage system. Most teens don’t need to earn $15 an hour. Heads of household need more. Adults who work full time should be compensated at a rate that allows them to afford a roof over their heads, heat and lights, basic medical care, sufficient food, and decent clothing for their children. It is unrealistic to expect parents to raise children on the same wages we pay teens.
I know it’s not simple. Owners of small businesses would be severely challenged, many would close, if required to pay their adult workers much more than the current minimum wage.If we were to adopt a blanket system of one wage for young workers and a higher one for adults, teens would be in high demand while adults would be unable to find jobs. And, of course, anytime we suggest a reasonable compensation for workers we face a strong pushback from those who insist that the result would be loss of jobs, a cramping of our free economy. There is a place between the extremes. Small, struggling businesses should not be forced to pay more than they can truly afford. Very large companies that are earning very large profits should be required to provide a fair level of compensation to the workers who make the profits possible.
If we want our children — all of them — to grow up to be competent, participating members of their communities, fully functioning and self-sufficient, we need to see to it that they grow up properly housed and fed, secure, healthy and ready to learn. In order for that to happen, we need to ensure that parents are able to earn enough money to make it possible. We can do this by adopting a wage structure that pays adults enough for a minimally decent life.
Jeanne Fischer Montross lives in Salisbury.MORE IN Commentary
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