One of the unlovely traditions of American politics is the annual Labor Day fight over minimum wage. Never mind that about one percent of U.S. workers earn the minimum wage. Like stem cells and school choice, the debate over minimum wage isn’t really about what we all pretend it’s about.
I’ve never made minimum wage. There is no need to do so. There are lots of reasons to take a minimum-wage job, but the lack of better-paying work almost certainly isn’t one of them. I grew up poor and have held some humble jobs — Burger King fry-guy and 7-Eleven graveyard-shift polyester-smock-wearer among them — and I’ve never even been offered minimum wage. In my neighborhood in the D.C. suburbs, fast-foot joints are offering upwards of $9 an hour plus free meals. Answering phones at the pet day-care center gets you $11/hour, making phone calls for a local survey company gets you $13/hour. Working as an assistant at an art gallery’s web store gets you $40,000 a year plus benefits. Doggie day care and art galleries: Damn you, heartless capitalism!
In my earlier jobs I didn’t make a lot more than minimum wage, true, and I certainly could have made a lot more money working as a roofer, warehouse hand, or tile-installer. I worked at Burger King because it was an easy job to get and because it was close enough to my house that I could walk to work — I wasn’t old enough to drive, so that was a real consideration. I worked at 7-Eleven because I was going to stay up all night reading, anyway, and 7-Eleven paid me to do so. It doesn’t take that long to clean the Slurpee machine and straighten up the frozen burritos every night, and Lubbock, Tex., where I grew up, isn’t exactly bustling with business at 4 A.M. on a Tuesday.
Working at Burger King actually turned out to be a pretty good gig. (I’ve had worse jobs — much worse — many of which paid much more.) I was a vegetarian at the time, so I spent the summer living on Burger King salads and lost about 30 pounds. But the great thing was that they illegally exploited me. The local Burger King franchise–owner decided to complement a dozen of his establishments with those “playscapes” designed to entice little kids into pestering their parents to take them to Burger King. They needed somebody to help build playscapes, but didn’t want to go through the hassle of hiring a crew to do the work. So they paid me $10 an hour on top of my not-minimum wage to assemble giant nets full of rubber balls and plastic slides.. They also gave me coupons for about 100 free Whoppers, which I distributed to my carnivorous friends. Of course I was paid in cash, without benefits or Social Security contributions, and of course I was working more hours than a 15-year-old is supposed to be allowed to work. But I was happy to be making $15 an hour back when minimum wage was something like $3.15. I didn’t feel exploited. I wanted more hours.
I worked the late-night shift at Burger King, and we stayed open late enough to catch the drunker-than-Cooter-Brown / high-as-a-Georgia-pine after-hours trade from the honky-tonk across the street. Our dining room was full of hungry, boot-scootin’ drunks at 3 A.M. — one of them blazed enough to ask me “What do you recommend?” as though I were I maître d’ at the Four Seasons. But I had the good fortune to work with a really good fast-food crew managed by a former West Point cadet named Wally. As a West Point fish Wally had been assigned the “job” of being a human doorknocker for an upperclassman and was obliged to spend several hours each evening hanging from said upperclassman’s door. Not appreciating how this was going to prepare him to help defend our republic against all foes, foreign and domestic, Wally quit West Point and worked as a Burger King assistant manager to put himself through college. He ran a good burger joint — good enough that people left us tips, which is fairly unusual for a fast-food gig. Wally — now Prof. Wally to you, MBA, Ph.D — is happily ensconced in a good university chair these days.
Burger King kept me occupied all summer, fed me free salads and endless Diet Pepsis, and, best of all, paid me well enough that I still had a little money left over after buying some back-to-school gear and a beautiful old Gibson guitar of the sort made famous by Chuck Berry. Most people who earn minimum wage aren’t heads of households. They’re young people in their first jobs, saving up for guitars, used cars, or Spring Break ski trips. In our nation of 300 million souls, about 500,000 people earn the minimum wage, according to the Labor Department. In fact, there are about three times that many people being paid illegally low wages, the government estimates. Even so, more than 90 percent of our 12 million illegal immigrants are making better than minimum wage. Remember those raids on the meatpacking plant in Greeley, Colo.? Those illegals were making about $10 an hour — as a starting wage. Those who’d been there for a while were earning more, of course.
I’ve done all sorts of things for money — I’ve been a bouncer-for-hire at frat parties, a writing tutor, a lawn mower, and a newspaper editor — at one point, an illegal immigrant newspaper editor in India. I once had a job shoveling ice into a hole for the Coca-Cola Bottling Co., which paid me more than twice minimum wage for doing a job that could have been performed by a reasonably well-trained monkey. When I was an unemployed newspaper editor, I wrote copy for furniture catalogs. Philadelphia Bulletin reporter Jim McCaffrey and I once even made extra cash by pretending to be tough guys on behalf of a rent-collector in New Jersey. And McCaffrey’s a professional Tarot card reader, among other things. Opportunity abounds.
I’m not going to offer a Labor Day hymn to the value of honest hard work, because I’d honestly hardly work at all if I didn’t have an appetite for things that cost money. But I do resent like hell people who quietly disdain working-class Americans and the jobs they do, as though to work outside of an office is to have somehow failed at life.
I have an acquaintance who runs an auto-body shop, and I’ve heard it said of him that he is so smart that he should have gone to college and “made something of himself.” That’s hogwash. Setting aside the fact that as the owner of an auto-body shop this fellow earns about twice what your typical lawyer manages to shanghai from honest folks in a year, he’s running his family business, started making decent money while he was still in high school, got married and had a bunch of kids while he and his wife were still young enough to enjoy them, takes care of his own, and makes his town a better place. He did make something out of himself, and his house was paid for before he was 30. I envy the guy: His wife and kids actually seem to like him, and he has a 1964 Impala done up so sweet it could give you cavities. So maybe he never read Marcus Aurelius. You know what? Most college graduates never read Marcus Aurelius, either. They take Literature Lite and get degrees that enable them to spend their days watching spreadsheets and their nights watching working-class people laboring on Pimp My Ride. You think the guys who live Pimp My Ride go home and watch somebody edit spreadsheets at night?
Rather than spending every Labor Day bickering about the minimum wage, I’d like to see the Powers That Be make it easier for creative 15-year-olds to start learning to become welders, metal fabricators, or carpenters. It would be a far better thing than treating them like they’re lazy or retarded because they don’t have much interest in poetry or algebra.
– Kevin Williamson is a writer and editor based in Washington, DC.