Some people turn supposedly dead-end, minimum-wage jobs into careers.
Others turn them into feel-good but self-defeating exercises in political and fiscal futility.
And make no mistake, recent demands by government officials in Washington, D.C., and workers in New York that Wal-Mart and fast-food joints pay a so-called “living wage” far above that required by law will ultimately be futile precisely because they fail to account for an even more immutable law: basic economics.
Only in fantasyland or the insane print-and-spend world of the federal bureaucracy would anyone seriously expect Wal-Mart, McDonald's or anybody else to raise salaries by 50 percent or even 100 percent without seriously undermining their ability to remain competitive.
But in an America increasingly addled by the entitlement mentality, the notion (to quote a Manhattan Wendy's worker) that you “can't survive on $7.25” is offered as proof of nefarious intent and justification for still more government intervention into matters best left to free enterprise and private conscience.
Of course, the minimum wage was never intended to be a “living wage” any more than Social Security was intended to sustain people through decades of retirement. My first job was at the New Haven McDonald's, earning less than $2 an hour and all the Big Macs I could eat. It wasn't great money even then, but as a high-school student living at home with no kids of my own, it was more than enough to pay for dates.
That's the point missed by the Washington politicians who recently passed a bill requiring Wal-Mart and other large retailers to pay a “living wage” of at least $12.50 an hour, and by the protests by fast-food workers in New York demanding the minimum wage more than double from $7.25 to $15 an hour. The minimum wage is the entry into the business world; it's only a destination for those lacking the skills or effort to do better.
Bronx McDonald's employee Natalia Sepulveda was no doubt right when she complained that her job is “noisy, really hot, fast, they rush you. Sometimes you don't even get breaks.” But instead of picketing a job she freely chose, perhaps she would have been better-served by doing what's necessary to gain skills, earn more or spend less.
My time at McDonald's was hard work but it was also brief, because I knew I wanted to be a reporter, not a burger-flipper. Even so, the job taught the value of a strong work ethic and the ability to work under pressure with all sorts of people.
And it's occurred to me more than once that, had I stayed at McDonald's, I might be making at least as much as a store manager or executive as I do today.
That's not just idle speculation. A boyhood friend named Rick Bender was just a student when he started as a part-time bag boy at Scott's Foods on Decatur Road in 1973, earning $1.72 an hour. Once high school ended, however, he began to work full-time, moving up the corporate food chain from bagger to shelf-stocker to manager of frozen foods to assistant store manager and, ultimately, the top job itself. Later on he became manager of – you guessed it – a local Wal-Mart store.
But now, because of what the politicians have done in Washington, D.C., residents there may not get the same chance. Wal-Mart, which has long been targeted by unions, has said the action by the city – which does not even pay all of its own full-time employees the wage it demands from the giant retailer -- endangers plans for three stores and hundreds of jobs.
Before Wal-Mart opened at the former Southtown Mall site, then-NAACP President Michael Latham threatened a boycott because the store did not offer the same hours and services available at other locations. He later thought better of the idea, and the store was warmly received by south-side residents glad for the expanded shopping options in their part of town. Surely the moral grandstanders know that even if Wal-Mart and McDonald's did increase wages, they would be forced to compensate by hiring fewer people or increasing prices, thereby hurting the poor and underserved most of all.
It's true that in 1914 Henry Ford raised his minimum wage to $5 per day – more than twice what most factory workers earned. But it was a choice he freely made after correctly reasoning that he would benefit from his employees being able to afford the cars they produced. Later, when workers demanded more than he was willing to pay, Ford became vehemently anti-union.
Since then, automakers have received government bailouts, moved jobs offshore, and the "Motor City" of Detroit has been rendered desolate and bankrupt. Anybody else see a pattern here?