If raising the minimum wage kills jobs, why don’t we lower it?

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If raising the federal minimum wage would hurt businesses, as many aver, then it stands to reason that lowering the federal standard from $7.25 an hour would help. What are we waiting for?

How about $5, perchance $3 an hour? That would be a steroid injection for our sluggish economy. Connecticut, which keeps raising its lowest wage, just doesn’t get it.

As a college student in 1970 I spent one summer working for a vegetable farmer and earned $1.45 an hour. The minimum wage for farm workers was lower than the $1.60 standard for other workers, presumably because we could inhale kale while slaving in the blazing sun or driving rain.

Business has taken so many big hits over the years it’s a wonder there are any entrepreneurs left. The compulsory six-day, 12-hour-a-day workweek is long gone. One of the first strikes in American history advocated for the 10-hour workday. Good times!

Child labor is now taboo, too, at least in this country, except in the tobacco fields down yonder in Dixie where pre-teens are exposed to nicotine poisoning. My fraternal grandfather began earning his keep at the age of ten in a Pennsylvania coal mine. Little people worked cheap and their tiny bodies and nimble hands allowed them to get into tight places where grownups couldn’t go.

Once the minimum wage was zero. For centuries slavery greased the wheels of commerce here and abroad. It wasn’t simply that free labor was good for plantation owners. Enslaved people represented collateral for commercial investment, profits for insurance companies, a lucrative market for New England dried cod, and a potent stimulus to expanding global trade.

As hard as it will be for some readers to believe, it was the Republican Party that brought this business-friendly era to a screeching halt. To be fair, the “Grand Old Party” was in its infancy in 1863 and has come a long way since. Today it sides with business over labor in almost every instance, fighting tooth and nail against most of the provisions that have shaped modern labor practices.

And the GOP is still fighting –- and not just against increasing the federal minimum wage for the first time since 2009. In Maine, Republicans recently tried to loosen restrictions on long standing child labor laws so teenagers could work longer and later on school nights (11 p.m.) and for considerably less than the minimum wage. Talk about progress!

But mainly, Republicans are pushing back against President Obama, Gov. Malloy et al, who are arguing that it is time to raise the minimum wage. The Democrats’ anti-business rant goes something like this:

  • Inflation has effectively decreased the federal minimum wage (which is not indexed to the cost of living as Social Security payments are) by more than 11 percent since 2009
  • To equal the purchasing power of the minimum wage circa 1968 would mean a current standard of $10.69, according to the Congressional Research Service
  • Lowest wage Americans need the extra money just to survive and will spend every penny of it on goods and services, thereby stimulating the economy more than tax breaks for the rich, who already have everything money can buy

Republicans reply pithily that businesses are people, too, (just ask the U.S. Supreme Court) and that higher wages are a “jobs killer.” For the life of me I don’t understand why they aren’t proposing to lower the minimum wage.

My grandfather and I survived the coal mines and the farm. I went back to college. Michael Holahan was rescued from a life underground by an uncle who was a priest and put him to work for the parish.

In my grandfather’s day things were simpler and regulations were few and far between. There were states that didn’t require children to attend school but allowed them to work in mines and factories.

That, of course, was when America was great.

David Holahan is a freelance writer who lives in East Haddam.

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