Only 17, Kayla had already graduated from high school and begun attending college to become a radiologist. She figured that her early start meant that her days at the fast-food chain where she had been working since 16 were numbered.
But then a family crisis unfolded. Kayla’s 15-year-old niece, Lindsey, was found sleeping on her front porch while her mom, struggling with drug addiction, was in bed with one of her drug dealers. When Kayla’s parents declined to take Lindsey in, Kayla volunteered to take temporary custody of her. But it was hard to be a good caretaker of her troubled niece and a good student—she’d have to leave in the middle of class to talk to the police about Lindsey, she had to drive her to and from school every day. Kayla’s grades suffered and she landed on academic probation, costing her what financial aid she did have. Eventually, she was forced to drop out of college.
After Lindsey’s custody battle got resolved, Kayla focused on working. At one point, she worked three jobs: shift manager at fast-food chain in the morning, childcare work in the afternoon, and call center employee in the evening. When she clocked out at midnight from the call center, she was bone-tired, but grateful for the pay and the work.
She quit the call center when “corporate” at the fast-food chain promised her a ticket to stability: they promoted her to be the general manager of the store she worked, which gave her better pay, a flexible schedule, paid vacations, health insurance, and even a company car. Now 20 years old, she felt like all her hard work was finally paying off. The company was making an investment in her, and in return, she gave her work her “full attention.”
But about a year later, corporate management shifted course and closed the store she had taken over as general manager—and sent her back to the store she had started out at (at age 16) to be a shift manager. They reduced her pay significantly and docked the benefits she had held.
We met Kayla two years after this, but she was still a shift manager for the same fast-food chain, working six days a week and putting in anywhere from 35 to 55 hours a week. Even when she worked 55 hours, though, she didn’t get paid for overtime. “I don’t know how they get around it, but there must be some loophole they found,” she said, nothing that “as far as I know, it’s a law that you’re supposed to get time and a half.”
Given all that, it was easy to see why she felt that the “corporate office” had “screwed” her by sending her back to the franchise. It was also easy to understand why, looking forward to having kids, she wanted to be a stay-at-home mother someday, but wasn’t raising her hopes. “Who can really afford to be a stay-at-home mom anymore?” she asked. “Most people, you need two working parents.”
In America’s recent past, it wasn’t this difficult for a hard-working young person to make a decent living.
I thought of Kayla, one of over 100 young adults my wife and I interviewed in southwestern Ohio, when reading the debates about the recent minimum wage hikes in California and New York. She didn’t make minimum wage, but she worked in an industry in which $10.25 an hour seemed like a great starting wage for a shift manager: that was the highest rate for that position she had ever encountered in the restaurant industry. And with a combined income of about $28,000 in 2009, she and her husband, who delivered pizzas, struggled to pay the $510 monthly rent in their federally supported low-income apartment complex.
Why? Besides their low wages, Kayla owed about $11,000 in college debt, and together she and her husband owed about $20,000 on credit card bills that had accrued thanks to what she described as a combination of poor spending choices and massive healthcare bills (her husband, who had no insurance, accrued a $65,000 medical tab after he cut his finger with a steak knife).
“There’s a lot of times when we’re sharing a couple packs of Ramen Noodles for dinner, especially at the beginning of the month when the rent’s due,” she said.
They hoped to eventually move on to better-paying industries, and Kayla had even re-entered college, this time studying for an associate’s degree in mental health. But it’s tough to move up when you don’t have insurance and doctor bills keep piling up and classes have to be cramped into your unpredictable 35- to 55-hours-a-week work schedule. (And at this point, they didn’t even have to worry about the complicated challenge of finding affordable childcare.)
In America’s recent past, it wasn’t this difficult for a hard-working young person to make a decent living. As New School economist David Howell recently pointed out, in 1980 over 60 percent of 18- to 34-year-old male workers with less than a college degree had a job that paid the equivalent of at least $16 an hour. In 2014, only 27 percent did. The trend is similar for young and less-educated female workers: in 1980, 32 percent had a job that paid the equivalent of $16 an hour, but only 15 percent did in 2014.
In 1980 more young people were like Alex, 23, another interviewee, who got a union job at a factory through his stepfather, the plant manager. The starting wage was almost $13 an hour. A few years after taking the job, Alex was making $16 an hour with lots of overtime (at time and a half!), which was enough for him and his wife to buy a house in a new subdivision. More young people were like Ethan, 21, who found a job at Costco, a famously well-paying employer, and a few years later bought a home with the handsome wages that he was still earning. (Costco’s starting pay for all employees is now $13 an hour, and the highest hourly pay is $22.50, which it takes a full-time employee about four years to reach.)
A living wage is not in the first place an economic issue but a moral issue.
When people are paid living wages, families stand to benefit. For instance, one study found that, for men, union membership was “positively and significantly associated with marriage,” a finding that the researchers said was mostly explained “by the increased income, regularity and stability of employment, and fringe benefits that come with union membership.”
Moreover, with a living wage comes the option for one parent to stay at home with the children if they wish, or at least to work only part-time. This is an option that many middle- and upper-middle-class families value and can make a reality, but that parents in low-wage work simply can’t afford (as Kayla alluded to).
Should conservatives, many of whom care a great deal about conserving strong families, really be okay with that? In a country as prosperous as America, should we make peace with an economy where, for many families, securing basic goods requires two full-time jobs?
Regrettably, when it comes to the living wage, many conservatives appear to be content to argue that raising the minimum wage (whether to $10.10 or $15 an hour) is bad economics—and leave it at that. Economic concerns matter, but as the Christian tradition has long held, a living wage is not in the first place an economic issue but a moral issue—it’s ultimately about paying a “just wage.” As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, “A just wage is the legitimate fruit of work. To refuse or withhold it can be a grave injustice.” If that’s true, then it’s not good enough to say that raising the minimum wage is a bad idea. We should also strive to make a living wage available to more working adults.
There are more utilitarian reasons to support a living wage. When employers give workers their due, a virtuous cycle ensues. When a company pays a husband or a wife a living wage, they are making it easier for a marriage and family to last. When a company pays a single parent a living wage, they are making it easier for a marriage to come into existence. When a company pays one parent a living wage, they are making it possible for that parent’s partner to invest more time with their children, as well as in voluntary associations in their neighborhoods and congregations. (If those “little platoons” of civil society are going to have any real force, we can’t all be full-time workers.) And when families and communities are thriving, they supply the workforce with securely attached young adults who are likely to have the skills, both social and vocational, that are necessary for a dynamic economy.
So, yes, you could argue that raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour would do more harm than good—but in your next thought you should apply the American talent for innovation and problem-solving to the task of figuring out how to make a living wage more widely available. If America is such an exceptional country, surely we can figure that out.