By BEN R. WILLIAMS
There’s an interesting behavior that’s been observed among crabs.
Let’s say you’re out catching crabs and tossing them in a bucket. Crabs are pretty good climbers, and you might notice that every so often, a crab attempts to climb out of the bucket. It should be a pretty easy process.
However, the second a crab starts to climb out, the other crabs will grab it with their pincers and drag it back down. While all of the crabs could escape the bucket if they just stayed in their own lane, they’re so preoccupied with keeping each other in the bucket that all of them end up doomed to the steamer.
I’ve been thinking about crab mentality a lot lately.
Back in 2012, a large number of minimum wage employees began what was known as “The fight for $15.” The minimum wage has been locked at $7.25 an hour since 2009, and these folks feel that it should be raised to $15.
It’s perhaps worth pointing out that, adjusted for inflation since 2012, the $15 they originally began advocating for would be $17 in today’s dollars, but I digress.
The fight for $15 is back in the news right now, and every time it comes up, I hear the exact same comment repeated a hundred different ways: “I’m a <insert job title here>, and I don’t think any burger-flipper should be making more money than I do.”
There are a couple of points to look at here.
First off, I have long believed that every single person should spend at least a few months working in the service industry. I can personally attest that just a little bit of time spent serving the public will give anyone a new appreciation of “burger-flippers.” It’s demanding work, both physically and emotionally. No matter where you work, there is always going to be a certain percentage of abusive customers who treat you like garbage. If you don’t believe me, just ask literally anyone who’s worked in the service industry for longer than an hour.
The pushback against the $15 minimum wage is especially galling right now, as we’re in one of the darkest periods of an ongoing pandemic that’s claimed more than 400,000 lives. If we can all agree that our minimum-wage employees are “essential,” then we should thank them with a living wage.
Having said that, let’s go back to the original point: should someone working in the fast food industry be making more than a teacher, or a social worker, or a paramedic?
Probably not. But the problem isn’t that raising the minimum wage would be paying service industry employees too much; the problem is that wages are stagnant across the board and everyone’s wages need to go up.
Up until the late 1960s, the minimum wage kept pace with inflation and productivity growth. Believe it or not, when adjusted for inflation, the high-water mark for the minimum wage occurred in 1968, when it was bumped from $1.40 to $1.60 an hour. You might even know some folks who point to that number or a similar one, arguing that they did just fine back in the day making less than two bucks an hour.
However, when adjusted for inflation, that $1.60 in 1968 would be equal to $12.13 in today’s money. While that’s a little below the $15 folks are asking for, it’s a whole lot more than $7.25 (and it also doesn’t factor in nationwide productivity growth, which is something we used to do back in “the good old days”).
“Well,” those same folks you might know will probably say, “if people want to earn more than minimum wage, they should go to college like I did.”
Back in 1968, the average cost of one semester at a public four-year college was $329. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $2,323 in today’s dollars. Today, the average cost of attending a semester at a four-year public college is $10,230. That’s a 340 percent increase over about fifty years.
The problem we have is that every year that we don’t increase the minimum wage, it goes down. As of today, there is not a single place in America where a full-time minimum wage worker can afford the rent on a two-bedroom apartment, and that same worker can only afford a one-bedroom rental in just five percent of counties in the U.S.
“All right,” your contrarian friend may reply, “I get it. But if we start paying all of these folks more money, prices are going to skyrocket, and I don’t want to have to pay an extra dollar for my cheeseburger.”
To that I say the following: before being let go in late 2019, the CEO of a popular clown-affiliated fast food franchise received about $16 million in annual compensation, which included not only salary but stock options and incentive payments.
I have never once heard anyone say that they’re concerned that a CEO’s pay is going to cause the price of their burger to go up. It’s time we should.