You’re Lucky Workers Are Only Asking for $15 an Hour

It’s time to question the flawed conventional wisdom driving the minimum wage debate

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

I was 16 when I got my first job at a McDonald’s in upstate New York. It was the fall of 2014; I was paid $8 an hour. It was around this time that I started thinking of my purchases in terms of time. A gallon of milk was around $3, slightly less than half an hour of labor. The cost of the average meal at McDonald’s was around $7, meaning that when a customer ordered a large Big Mac meal, they were spending what would take me just under an hour to earn. It would cost about $35 to fill up my car with gas — around four and a half hours of labor.

In January of 2015, New York state raised the minimum wage from $8 to $8.75, and our general manager responded by cutting every crew member’s hours significantly. The mid-tier managers would say stuff like, “I’m sorry, but because they increased the minimum wage, we can’t afford to give everyone the same hours.”

For the next week or so, everyone was working so few hours that they were actually making less at the $8.75 hourly rate than they would’ve been making under their full schedule at $8. The lesson from management was clear: Raising the minimum wage was actually bad because businesses would be forced to cut hours.

So much of what we learn about a minimum wage increase is bullshit.

After about two weeks or so, however, everyone’s hours went back to normal. The timing of the minimum wage increase just so happened to coincide with a decline in business. As I would later learn, the week or two after the winter holidays was always the slowest part of the year at our store. Busy holiday shoppers were no longer stopping off at McDonald’s to get quick food, and for the beginning of January, people were still attempting to stick by their New Year’s resolutions of eating healthy. Turns out, the cutting of our hours was due to a natural, predictable dip in business.

Fast forward a year. I was 17, still working at McDonald’s, and the minimum wage has just lifted again from $8.75 to $9. It is, in hindsight, a remarkably tiny improvement, but once again, the general manager responded by cutting hours. The same explanation was given: “Sorry, these new wage increases are really forcing our hand.” And, of course: “It’s basic economics: This is just what happens.” Like last time, everyone’s hours returned to normal after the first two weeks of January. Up until 2019, I came back to this McDonald’s during my summer and winter breaks in college, and every January, the exact same thing happened.

When discussing the possibility of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, it’s important to remember that so much of what we learn about a minimum wage increase is bullshit. When it comes to even the slightest of wage increases, companies will make a big show of how much this is hurting them, and we all just kind of accept it unthinkingly.

Back in 2018, the Tim Hortons franchise in Canada responded to a mandatory $2 wage increase by reducing employee benefits. Based on the news coverage of the event, you would think they simply had no choice. It was accepted, at face value, that company executives were honest in their claims that the government forced their hands despite the reality that their profit margins were pretty fucking good. They were still turning a profit and were in no actual danger of going bankrupt; they just needed people to associate higher wages with a loss of benefits and the threat of losing their jobs altogether.

This argument against raising the minimum wage is so firmly ingrained in our culture that people don’t even realize it’s a claim that needs to be proven. They think it’s a basic truth. As a result, advocates who have spent years researching the effects of raising the minimum wage will be met with quips like, “Don’t you understand basic math?”

The assumption is that math is on their side here. The assumption is so firmly ingrained in their minds that they don’t feel like they have to defend it. It just is. Despite the fact that there isn’t actually much evidence to suggest that raising the minimum wage will lead to job loss, this assertion is a basic reality to a lot of conservatives, moderates, and even liberals. When leftists argue in favor of $15 an hour, they are arguing against basic laws of nature. They are arguing for something that would obviously collapse the economy; don’t they know that? It’s basic math.

American society is uniquely designed to enforce the mindset that helping the lower class in any significant way is impossible.

The reality is that a major minimum wage increase would very likely provide a massive boost to the economy. A major increase in spending money for millions of Americans would lead to a boost in customer spending, which would more than make up for the initial sting of having to pay employees more. It’s been proven, after all, that money given to low-income people and the middle class is distributed back into the economy at a much higher percentage than money given to the rich. With fast-food employees making $15 an hour, that would also give other underpaid professions — like teachers and paramedics — significantly more leverage to advocate for wage increases themselves. The very idea of what constitutes a good wage would shift significantly in workers’ favor.

When opponents of the $15 an hour debate with advocates, there is a frustrating lack of effort put into their talking points. Some may point out that a fast-food worker would then make about as much as a paramedic, as if the obvious takeaway isn’t that we should be paying paramedics more as well. Others may argue that an increased minimum wage will lead to massive inflation, as if the evidence for that isn’t incredibly shaky at best. They will argue that if someone wants to be paid a living wage, that person should just learn a skill and find a real job, ignoring the obvious counterpoint that someone is always going to have to hold those low-paying jobs in order for society to function.

People expect teenagers to take these low-wage jobs, claiming a high school student doesn’t need a living wage while they’re still financially dependent on parents or extended family. But this logic is inherently flawed. Not only is it absurd to expect teens to fill these service jobs at all hours of the day, but their argument is also based on loaded assumptions that young people don’t need to provide for loved ones or themselves.

Even if they come from loving families, high school students should be able to meaningfully save up for college or adult life in general. That’s not possible today. I worked for around two years at McDonald’s before going to college, and the money I managed to save up was gone by the end of the first semester.

I spent a long time blaming myself for being bad with money, but the truth is I was never really a big spender. I was an antisocial person with inexpensive habits. I wasn’t going out to bars every weekend; I was staying home and reading books and watching TV. Still, by my second semester, I had to find a part-time job just to get by. It was only in my third year, when I started working as a freelance editor earning around $25 an hour, that I was able to start saving up money in a meaningful way. I had safety nets — if worse came to worst, I could always ask my parents for money — but so many people don’t.

This is how bad things have gotten: In the 1950s, the minimum wage was supposed to be enough for a person to support their family; today the minimum wage is enough for a college student to make it until their next paycheck, not much more. Unfortunately, a lot of people in this country think this is how it should be.

American society is uniquely designed to enforce and accept the mindset that helping the lower class in any significant way is impossible, that even if we tried to help them, it would just backfire and hurt them even more. Everything about this country is designed to stifle class consciousness.

For instance, we’re one of the only countries in the world that doesn’t include sales taxes in the price of an item. A lot of Americans don’t realize this, but it’s pretty rare in most other countries for customers to have to pay more for an item than what it says on the tag. Usually, the sales tax is taken into account when setting the price so the customer doesn’t need to do the math just to make sure they can afford it. Intentionally or not, this conditions you to hate the idea of taxes even more than you already do. This policy is designed to make you feel the pain of paying taxes in a way you simply wouldn’t if they just gave you the actual price upfront. It’s one of the many things that provokes that instinctual repulsion against an increase of any kind of taxes, even if it’s just relegated to the upper-income bracket.

We have a media that conditions us to think of billionaires and CEOs as geniuses who have our best interests at heart. Mainstream outlets often assume that a person who is good at running a business also knows what’s best for the economy as a whole. If the CEO of McDonald’s says a minimum wage increase will be bad for the economy, there’s very little question of whether there’s a conflict of interest there. We assume that what’s good for shareholders and what’s good for the economy are the same thing.

We have a society that’s been taught to hate minimum-wage employees, even while we rely on them for so many of the services that run our lives. Think of the contempt in people’s voices when they call a fast-food employee a burger flipper, the weird mocking tone in which they say the word janitor in the context of the $15 an hour debate.

We have a culture that encourages people to take pride in working unnaturally long hours. One of the most conservative people I’ve ever met was a manager at my McDonald’s who worked two jobs to support his family, totaling around 80 hours a week. He saw this as a sign of strength. He bragged about how little sleep he got and how many more hours he was working than the rest of us, never appearing to acknowledge the fact that it was insane and inhumane for him to have to do all this just to keep his family fed. In America, people take their systemic exploitation and spin it into a narrative about their personal endurance.

We also have a government that does not raise the minimum wage gradually alongside inflation. The federal minimum wage has stayed at $7.25 for over 11 years now. The best move for the economy would’ve been to increase this number gradually over the years, as many states like New York and Washington are already doing as well as countless other nations. If Congress moved it up just 50 cents a year, (which they essentially did from 2007 to 2009), we’d be at $12.50 right now without any major shocks to the system. $15 wouldn’t seem so extreme.

Instead, the federal government handles this issue in the most inefficient manner possible: by waiting until public pressure grows insurmountable. The minimum wage isn’t set to automatically rise along with inflation, let alone with the cost of living. This is by design. The goal is to make a minimum wage increase as noticeable and difficult as possible. It makes every boost feel like a major deal even though the minimum wage is still far, far below what it would be if it had kept up with the cost of living since the ’60s.

The reality is that if the minimum wage had stayed consistent with productivity and inflation since 1968, America’s lowest earners would be making around $24 an hour by now, an analysis by Jacobin found last year. Fifteen dollars is not asking for a lot. In fact, it’s asking for less than the bare minimum of what we should be providing our workers.

Because it’s been so long since there’s been a federal minimum wage increase, we’re at the point where raising it gradually is too little too late. It would help slightly, of course, but not enough to meaningfully improve the lives of the millions of workers. For too many minimum wage workers, $15 is necessary now. They can’t afford to wait another 10 years for it to slowly reach that point.

This has put activists in a tough position because, although the effects will be an overall positive, the act of doubling the minimum wage in such a short period would undoubtedly be a major change to our economy. There undoubtedly will be some unexpected side effects — good and bad — that would be easier to account for if the minimum wage had gone up gradually.

When the economy doesn’t collapse, when companies start to see the returns come in from the increased consumer spending, when millions of people are unburdened from the constant stress of working for as little as $7.25 an hour, people are going to realize that their understanding of the economy was based on lies the entire time.

They’ll see the reality that when CEOs say that something will cause them to lose money, what they mean is that it’ll cause them to maybe not make as much. They’ll see the reality that so much of our understanding of what’s good for the economy is really based around what’s good for shareholders, not what’s good for the working class. When this is made clear, it will be easier for advocates to continue pushing for minimum wage increases going forward. Because let’s face it: In reality, $15 an hour isn’t nearly enough.

I am a cautionary tale for others. Follow my newsletter: Follow me on twitter: @98MikeB

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