The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

17 December 2004

You expect me to live on this?

The Citizens League of Central Oklahoma held a panel discussion yesterday at Citychurch on the topic "Working Poverty: Is a Living Wage the Answer?" The League, which sponsored an appearance this fall by Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Making it In America, thought, reasonably enough, that their panel should include both advocates and opponents of the living wage, and an audience of about 100 showed up for the discussion. And, sure enough, the panel didn't agree on very much, except that wage scales here are on the low side.

I admit to some cynicism about the living wage myself. Living-wage ordinances tend to cover a small number of workers in a very specific environment: those who are covered by contracts with government agencies. Proponents can point to statistics which suggest that not only are increased costs minimal, but that they are offset by decreases in expenditures by government welfare organizations.

The argument against raising the minimum wage has always been that it tends to reduce the number of jobs available at the low end of the scale; however, since government demand for services is relatively inelastic, increased costs are generally greeted with shrugs rather than with layoffs. This suggests to me that while the living-wage programs may work, after a fashion, for the small number of employees they cover, extending them to the entirety of the private sector, where demand is elastic and cost control is more critical, is likely to be problematic at best.

Economist Larkin Warner of OSU, a member of the panel, remarked: "I would rather see someone employed at a lower wage than unemployed with higher wages." I once lost a job at nearly $12 an hour; after a series of sporadic temp jobs at $7 to $9, I wound up working for $6. At least the $6 was consistent: working for $6 proved to be a lot more lucrative than not working for $12. And I must point out that I had been turned down for a couple of jobs in the $5.50 range because, they said, I was so overqualified that I'd jump ship at the first opportunity. A substantial skill set, it appears, is the one sure way to get off any government-set wage floor. Perhaps this should be the topic of the next panel discussion.

(Update, 18 December, 8:00 am: Daniel Medley at LoboWalk notes: "The single most effective way of raising the minimum wage and improving the economy in this country is to secure our sovereignty and our borders.")

Posted at 9:37 AM to Political Science Fiction


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