As the minimum wage debate gridlocks in Albany (check out Karen DeWitt’s latest update here) I stumbled across two arguments that seemed to get at the heart of the stand-off.
The first, from the group Unshackle Upstate, argues that a hike in New York’s minimum wage would slam small businesses, forcing many to close, lay off workers, or move out of state.
“New York will maintain its reputation as being anti-business,” the group argues.
Fair enough. I know a lot of small business owners who haven’t been doing all that well lately.
The idea of forcing them to increase their salary costs in this tough economy seems pretty sketchy.
But on the other side of the equation is the often overlooked fact that 84% of New Yorkers who earn minimum wage aren’t kids.
This debate really isn’t about college students or high schoolers earning a few bucks on the side.
That argument, made all too often by opponents of a minimum wage hike, is a cop-out.
It doesn’t confront the deep poverty that comes with earning $7.25 an hour.
So as we make this decision, Albany lawmakers and advocates on both sides should confront honestly what happens when businesses can’t or won’t pay their employees a living wage.
Many of those workers — even those employed full time — will wind up falling back upon government services, relying on taxpayers for everything from rent support to medical care to food.
That may well be a reasonable role for the government to play. But it strikes me that there might be a more reasonable way to approach this.
Rather than allow workers and their families to fall first into abject poverty, before we ask Albany to step in, perhaps the state should offer some kind of wage supports to the employees of companies that a) can demonstrate an inability to pay living wages, and b) can show that their workers are grown-ups, not teenagers.
The truth is that as long as American workers can put in a 40 hour work week and still not earn enough to pay for basic necessities, someone’s going to have to foot the bill to stave off unacceptable levels of poverty.
(I think it’s safe to say that no one wants a return to the days of tenements, widespread hunger, infant mortality, and so on.)
So if the answer isn’t to require higher minimum wages, then we should begin looking for smarter approaches to helping the fully-employed poor.