In recent times, minimum wage has become a hotly debated topic in U.S. politics; specifically, the Raise the Wage Act which would increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025. The primary talking points on the issue are what defines a basic living wage and unemployment. Those in favor of the bill believe that a higher minimum wage is necessary for economic survival for employees, and those against it argue that businesses suffer from increased costs, resulting in laying off those employees.
Outside any economic argument, there is a deeper cultural issue with minimum wage in the United States — namely how low earning jobs are stigmatized in society. Those with low economic status are regarded callously, both by these individuals themselves and those around them.
The disrespect toward lower economic classes is rooted in the fundamentals of the American Dream, however, it is absurd to believe that wealth has a connotation of a hardworking nature, instead of luck. A report conducted by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce indicates that wealth, not ability, is the best measure of future success, regardless of the field.
Additionally, one can estimate their own personal opportunity through The Opportunity Atlas, which uses metrics such as race, location and parental income to determine one’s future.
The U.S. has the cultural problem of viewing employment as transformative — a constant progression towards a higher earning career. Assuming that everyone has the capacity to escape minimum wage employment degrades those without the opportunity to do so. Furthermore, this line of thinking is particularly ironic during the pandemic, where minimum wage jobs became more important than ever. Front-line workers make up 60% of those who would benefit from a $15 minimum wage.
While many consider the minimum wage job to be a “starter job,” 28% of Americans earn less than $15 an hour, suggesting that it has been the living wage for many. Additionally, minimum wage workers are more likely to be women, people of color and immigrants who rely on entry-level jobs to support themselves. Therefore, pay inequality exacerbates gender, racial and immigrant inequity.
During the pandemic, financial circumstances have become increasingly difficult for low earners, specifically in Los Angeles. A USC report details the economic impact of the coronavirus on marginalized communities in L.A. County, highlighting an array of disparities between white communities who were able to more easily pay rent, receive vaccinations and reopen schools versus predominantly Black, Indigenous people and people of color populations who suffered increased housing insecurity, minimal vaccination rollout attention and dismal opportunities around school reopenings.
What is the answer to the plight of the low-wage worker in the U.S.?
One solution would be valuing previous work experience more in the application for higher-earning jobs. Currently, a resume padded with internships is valued above one with minimum wage experience, which reinforces the fallacy of upward mobility from a minimum wage job. While experience in a professional environment is useful, the skills learned in customer service are universally helpful and valuable.
There’s already an argument that everyone should work in retail at some point in their lives; a job at a clothing store can help one develop teamwork and interpersonal skills through navigating difficult customers. Furthermore, nothing proves a candidate’s competence and commitment more than maintaining a job long term, especially in a less glamorous role.
If working a minimum wage job was more generally mandated for higher-earning jobs in the future, the people who are eventually selected for those careers would have a broadened perspective of the reality of minimum wage work.
People who have that formative experience earlier in their careers are likely to have a greater sense of empathy for those from different economic situations. Arguing against a minimum wage is almost impossible if one experiences the working conditions directly. Emphasizing the actual value of low-wage jobs culturally and within all career trajectories would create a broader cultural interest in achieving greater equity.