[I came across this column I wrote for The Houston Post in February 1995. I post it here not because I think it’s that great, but rather because I was struck how little has changed over the last 20 years when it comes to this issue.]
SIXTY DOLLARS. Somehow, that was always the magic number.
If my mother worked enough hours to ensure that her weekly take-home pay from the Del Monte cannery would be at least $60 – which meant that she’d worked six 10-hour days at the $1.25 minimum wage – we’d issue a collective sigh of relief.
Sixty dollars meant that when we went to Tío Juan’s small grocery store, we’d be able to pay cash for the week’s supply of food and other necessities; the tab wouldn’t be entered in the credit ledger, to be repaid upon our return in October for our yearly trek to the sugar beet fields of North Dakota.
Sixty dollars meant we could pay the gas, water and electric bill. It meant that if one of us needed new shoes, we’d be able to go to JCPenney’s to buy them.
It meant that in my mother had taken out a loan from the local bank or credit union so that my sister could go to college one more semester, she’d be able to make the monthly installments on the note.
Sixty dollars meant we could make another payment to Dr. Poindexter, who owned the hospital and the pharmacy and allowed us to pay on credit.
In short, $60 meant peace of mind, if only for that week. The next, my mother’s check might be $50, or $40, or less – or there might not be a check at all.
One bad freeze would kill the spinach crop and that would mean the end of the weekly paychecks for an entire season. When that happened we’d have to survive on the $20 or $30 in unemployment benefits (if she had worked enough to qualify for benefits) and what little we could earn on weekends out in the field working at 75 cents an hour (the minimum wage excluded farm work).
ONCE, ONE OF my sisters talked my mother into taking a maid’s job because it would provide a steady paycheck. It did – $30 a week. When she returned to the cannery, she had lost her seniority and that meant less work. She never gave up, though. Every day, she’d hitch a ride to the cannery just in case somebody had failed to show up. If she didn’t get hired, which was usually the case, she’d do the same thing for the evening shift.
In case you think of this as a woe-is-me column, it isn’t. Those were relatively good time for us (although I can’t speak for my mother). We owned our house so we didn’t have to worry about rent. Gasoline often sold for a quarter a gallon. A candy bar was a nickel. A movie ticket 40 cents, a loaf of bread a quarter and milk 30 cents a quart.
It wasn’t paradise, but neither was it the oppressive misery of Appalachia or big-city slums. We never lost hope; we all believe that eventually, through education and/or hard work, we would escape that kind of life, and we did
No, this column is about the minimum wage debate. In the three decades since my mother was struggling to support us on $1. 25 an hour, the minimum wage has increased by 240 percent.
If the price of bread increased at that same amount, a loaf would cost you 69 cents today. So would a gallon of gas. A candy bar and a bag of Fritos would be 12 cents each. A movie ticket 96 cents, and popcorn would be a quarter.
THE POINT IS that there is no way anybody can justify opposing an increase in the minimum wage so that poor people can have close to the same buying power they used to have.
The usual argument against increasing the minimum wage is that we all suffer as a result of increased prices for consumer goods and services.
Why? Nowhere is it written that paying people a just, living wage means raising prices. Most companies can pay higher wages without raising prices if they’d be willing to sacrifice a bit on the profit in corporate executives sides.
But what if prices were to go up? Why should those at the bottom suffer just so the rest of us can continue to enjoy our pampered existence? Small businesses will be hurt, you say? Possibly, but no one has a right to exploit others’ labor to ensure his own survival.
The current wage disparity makes as a nation that engages in the form of economic slavery. It is both cruel and immoral, and no nation – especially one that prides itself on its religious foundation – can justify such a system
Sen. Phil Gramm – who’s been on the taxpayer’s payroll his entire adult life — says he wants those “riding the wagon” to get off “and help the rest of us pull.” The truth is that most poor people don’t have time to ride Phil Gramm’s wagon: they are too busy trying to survive on $4.25 an hour.