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February 09, 2017

No Job is Bad

Raise the Minimum Wage AND Remove Disincentives for Work.

This is a radical non-partisan proposal; probably both the left and right will hate it.

The national and Vermont unemployment rates ignore huge numbers of people who could be working but aren’t – the people who aren’t actively looking for jobs. At least part of the cause of the drug epidemic raging in America is the demoralizing effect of joblessness. The economy is held back both because potentially productive people are not productive and because we have a vast and duplicative welfare apparatus to support both those who aren’t working and those whose jobs don’t pay them enough to get by. Children who grow up in a house without a wage earner are less likely to successfully enter the labor force themselves.

For many people, not working is currently a good personal economic decision even if it is a poor lifestyle decision and bad for the economy as a whole. The jobs they can get pay less than the benefits they are eligible for if they don’t work. We need to address both sides of the equation: raise the pay for entry level jobs and reduce or eliminate benefits for not working – except, of course, for those who can’t work.

These two steps have to be taken together. Together they will be very powerful. This is part of how we put America to work again.

Let’s look at some of the objections that will be raised:

  1. Employers like restaurants can’t afford to pay more. The truth is that they can’t afford to UNILATERALLY pay more. If McD pays 30% more than Burger King, it will price itself out of business. If both pay 30% more, the price of fast food will go up but neither of them will be at a competitive disadvantage.
  2. Prices will go up. This is true (see above). But taxpayers are subsidizing the low wages and low hamburger prices by paying needed supplements (welfare) to those who can’t get by on what they’re paid. If wages go up, it IS essential that this be reflected in a reduction or elimination of benefits for those who will now be able to support themselves. We will pay more for hamburgers but less in taxes and less in the social and dollar cost of permanent unemployment. One over-simplified way to look at this is that the middle class is subsidizing low wages to benefit the 1%.
  3. Some jobs will disappear if the minimum wage is raised. This is also true; the incentive to automate will get even larger. However, a stronger economy will produce more jobs; people who earn more spend more. Right now in Vermont there are MORE minimum wage jobs available than people willing to take them – look at the help-wanted signs in every fast food restaurant. Employment - real employment – can go up even if some jobs are eliminated. However, it is important that these steps be taken at a time when there are jobs available. This isn’t a strategy for a recession; it’s a strategy to make us stronger before the next recession.
  4. It will be harder for kids to find part time work. This is true and needs thought. An apprentice program with a lower minimum wage would be good for kids but might drain too many jobs from adults. Overall I think it’s most important that kids have the example of working parents.
  5. It’s inhumane to tell people they will lose their benefits if they don’t take jobs they don’t find fulfilling. No Job is Bad. It is very bad not to have a job. Any job which is safe and pays a living wage is better than no job. It is inhumane to discourage people from working with our current policy of an historically low minimum wage AND high benefits for not working. It is inhumane to force those who are working to also become dependents of the welfare system to get by.
  6. What we really need are more higher-paying jobs and people trained to fill them. Yeah, we need those things, too. But we must immediately address the problem of people without fancy skills. Moreover, there is no better job training program than a job.
  7. It’s not so simple. We’ll need a transition. We’ll need to make sure people don’t fall through the cracks. Health care is still “unaffordable”. Child care is an issue. But the tradeoff of higher wages for lower subsidies needs to be set in law and set in motion.

Because we do have both unfilled entry-level jobs in Vermont and people who have left the labor force but can work, we are in a position to implement this here now. We don’t need permission from the Feds. We might set a good example, which we always like to do. The motto might be Everyone Works for a Living Wage.

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