The cost of degrading minimum-wage workers
There's no reason low-wage workers shouldn't require dignity, respect and better pay, especially as employers struggle to fill these jobs. (Stock photo via Canva)
“If you don’t shut up and pay attention, you’ll be flipping burgers for the rest of your life,” was a frequent outburst from my elementary school teacher in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
Teaching reluctant 10-year-olds how to do long division without a calculator probably wasn’t the focal point of that man’s career. However, today, I question why that former teacher repeatedly denigrated hourly wage workers by implying they were unintelligent, especially when he taught students whose parents worked those jobs and paid taxes that funded his salary.
Throughout the 1980s, parents and teachers of Gen Xers and millennials nationwide issued that dire warning of flipping burgers while those same adults ate at cheap restaurants and the federal minimum wage failed to keep up with inflation. The threat of poor wages and physically grueling work, instead of the joy of learning, was supposed to scare students into doing well academically.
In 1987, the year my teacher barked out those put-downs, the hourly federal minimum wage was $3.35 or almost $7,000 per year before taxes. Back then, the federal poverty line for a family of four was $11,611. Today, that figure amounts to $8.94 or $18,595 per year before taxes. In 2022, the federal poverty line for a family of four was $27,750. The federal government hasn’t modified the current federal minimum wage, $7.25, since 2009. (Twenty states plus Puerto Rico either don’t have a state-level minimum wage, which defaults to the federal rate in those cases, or is equivalent to the federal minimum wage.)
Comparing those figures to CEO pay over the last 45 years is shocking. Compensation for CEOs rose 1,322.2% since 1978. Those increases weren’t due to hard work but rather, “…vesting stock awards and cashing out stock options at a time of high stock prices.” Those CEO dollars would have otherwise gone to worker pay to gradually keep up with inflation and the cost of living. Increased paychecks would have had a greater portion going back into the economy and the public sector via taxes.
My former teacher needed his own education on subtraction and empathy for the working poor.
Casual disparagement of America’s low-skilled workforce isn’t the only reason why public officials and policymakers were slow to increase the minimum wage over the last 85 years. However, assuming hourly workers are stupid and academically lazy is fundamental to holding them hostage in poverty without guilt or accountability. If you convince yourself that low-wage jobs are a punishment instead of honorable employment, then you’ll never see those industrious workers as struggling human beings who deserve a livable wage. Elected officials never have to address the cycle of poverty and the systems that fuel economic hardships, and teachers and parents can terrify children into obedience. Laziness indeed!
Jobs in food service, retail, caregiving, child care, janitorial services, and the hospitality industries are physically demanding and essential to our nation’s economy. Despite the mediocre pay, these jobs can have hazardous and unsafe working conditions. There is no reason these professions shouldn’t require dignity, respect, and better pay, especially as employers struggle to fill those roles. Without those workers, our life would be in immediate, daily chaos.
As nationwide scorn and mockery spread to teachers, I wasn’t surprised. When one group of dedicated, low-wage workers became fair game for derision and insults, why wouldn’t that same contempt expand to include teachers who are in the next income bracket? What high-demand, low-wage industry would ever be safe?
Today, I know how to do long division, but I use the calculator on my phone because it’s faster and more likely to be accurate. But life does have a sense of humor and irony. The last time I saw my teacher, he was in line at the local Dairy Queen. For his digestive tract’s benefit, I hope none of his former students handled his food.
Maria Reppas lives with her family on the East Coast. Her writing has been in the Washington Post, USA Today, Newsweek, New York Daily News, Ms. Magazine, and the Des Moines Register. Visit her on Twitter and at mariareppas.com.
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