January 25, 2014
Minimum wage discrimination
I was listening to WNYC on the radio recently, as is my habit in the mornings—to a segment on proposed minimum wage increases in New Jersey. Part of the argument centered on how to balance the original premise of the minimum wage—that a single full-time worker should be able to afford a home and support a family—with projected costs to business and job creation of an increase. The host made a suggestion which I’ve heard before—that a possible compromise might be to institute a graduated or split minimum wage, allowing teenagers to be paid a lower minimum wage than full adults or single parents.
This proposal always viscerally disturbs me. It’s a dangerous message to send to teenagers and young workers, that for no other reason than their age—not the quality of their work—their work is less valuable and less respected.
Aside from that we should be increasing, not decreasing, opportunities for teenagers and young adults to build assets and economic stability, it is an invitation to job and wage discrimination on practically every level.
What exactly is to keep minimum wage employers from hiring only people they know they can pay a sub-minimum wage? This has every potentiality to backfire and hurt young single parents more, not less.
The rationale behind this is also the exact same reasoning which was once commonly used to justify wage discrimination against women—that because men were more often supporting families on a single salary than women, women just didn’t need to be paid as much as men. Or, if we’re going to say that teenagers who are parents would be paid a higher wage than teenagers who aren’t, then we’re punishing teenagers who don’t have children before they’re ready for that choice. If the goal is to convince kids not to have children themselves too young, how can we then justify underpaying them for upholding that ideal?
And if we’re trying to instill in teenagers the conviction that higher education is the way out of being stuck in minimum wage jobs for life, how hypocritical is it to then hobble their every effort to be able to afford to get that education?
It’s engaging in dangerously utopian thinking to presume that working teenagers are only working for movie and pizza money because their parents are sufficiently providing for all of their actual needs—and not that a teenager’s income is quite possibly significantly helping to support their family, that they’re helping to keep younger siblings fed, or are actually supplying most of their own basic needs and transportation costs because their parents can’t. Or that they’re not a foster kid who’s going to be out on their own the day they turn 18 and are going to need work history and assets in order to not wind up homeless. Or that they know that their parents are not going to be able to help them pay for college and are trying to minimize their future student loan debt.
Maybe they just want to be able to put down a security deposit on an apartment and get out on their own sooner rather than later.
It’s reinforcing this cycle wherein we infantilize teenagers and young adults by falsely constraining their choices and opportunity, by arbitrarily and prejudicially restricting their autonomy, and then blaming them for the results when they can’t afford to start independent lives. At the same time as we ponder whether young adults’ failure to buy homes, get married, build savings, and have children means that they’re cognitively incomplete, or “emerging” adults, rather than that they can’t afford to meet those expectations, we talk openly of further economically disenfranchising them.
What do we even expect if we won’t afford them the decency of the absolute minimum that we’d expect anyone else to consider an economically fair shot? What are we telling them when we say that they, and their labor, are worth less than that?
The minimum wage should actually be that–the actual minimum that we consider fair compensation for hourly labor, no matter who you are.