March 28, 2005

Minimum Rage

I remember minimum wage.

Oh, sure - in high school, I made $2.90 an hour. And my first 'real' job out of college, interning at KSTP-AM, paid $3.35 - this, back when my rent was $110 a month, was something of a livable wage. Sort of.

I've flirted with awful money over the years. When I left nightclubs, I worked for $7 an hour as an essay grader, and $6.50 as a document coder. This, with two kids and another one on the way.

All of this apropos the Strib's biennial shamefest on the Minimum Wage.

First, the qualified kudo; unlike many stories on the subject, the Strib's piece provides counterpoint of its own...:

Consider Peggy Rasmussen, who has owned the 55-seat Countryside Cafe in Medina on the outskirts of the metro area for 30 years. Her 22 workers serve breakfast and lunch. With no alcohol, the cafe is far from a high-margin business.

Rasmussen provides health insurance to help reduce employee turnover and pays those who bus tables $6.50 an hour, dishwashers between $7 and $8 an hour and cooks from $10 to $13.50 an hour. Waitresses and waiters receive the $5.15 minimum, but can take home more than $100 in tips on busy weekends.

Increasing the minimum wage, she said, could cost her business about $20,000 in raises. "People say: 'Just raise the prices and it will all work out,' but working-class people will only pay so much," said Rasmussen, who has testified against raising the minimum wage at the state Capitol. "Smaller places up north who can't afford to come down and speak on the issue would be devastated."

...which is, I suspect, the first many minimum wage activists have heard about this side of the subject.

The untold story on the minimum wage; anyone who's not a recent high school or college graduate, and is past the mid-twenties, who is still earning minimum wage is probably operating under some sort of constraint, usually self-imposed; they dropped out of high school, they have a criminal record or some sort of psychological or chemical impairment, or they simply avoided learning any job skills that are marketable for more than the minimum.

Example: we learn that Sonny Benettie, the main subject of the story, is in his mid-fifties. He has issues.

In many ways, Benettie is already devastated. He has no permanent address and hops between friends' couches.

"Affordable living is out of the question when you're making six bucks an hour," he said.

Benettie grew up in rural Mississippi, served as a Marine in the Vietnam War and has lived in the Twin Cities for 25 years. He has been a dishwasher at a local college and worked for various hauling companies over the years.

When his ex-wife lost her sales job because of a department store closing in the late-1990s, "the bills piled up sky-high" and so did the tension. He was convicted of fifth-degree domestic assault in 2001 and spent a year in prison in Faribault. With a felony on his record, a steady job is hard to find.

Kristina Diamond, a coordinator at Labor Ready, says Benettie is one of their hardest-working and most reliable day laborers and gets strong evaluations from the companies using their service.

A chunk of the money he earns is garnished to provide child support. When there's no work and he falls behind on those payments, his driver's license can get revoked -- miring him in a downward spiral.

Benettie said shame, guilt and disappointment in himself keep him from visiting his daughter as much as he'd like.

"It's very painful to have a 9-year-old and not be financially able to ... do the things she'd like to do," he said. "Rather than letting her down, you just don't call or go over. It's painful, very painful."

Y'see, there's a great story here; the domestic abuse industry creates a lot of ex-felons in this state - it's a scandalously easy system to get sucked into. The familyl court system pretty much chews up low-skilled, low-income guys like Benettie and spits them out; the child support system takes what it wants and leaves, for men like Benettie, very little at the end of the day; there's an underclass of men in Minnesota that can never get dug out of poverty, no matter how hard they work (as, indeed, Benettie seems to). Assuming Benettie's ex-wife has a similar story, the welfare system is probably involved, and there's a system there that needs to have a light flipped on, working hand-in-glove with the child support system while actively encouraging dependence on it. There are four different systems that need exposing!

But the Strib doesn't tell any of those stories. It tells the story of the minimum wage - which won't even serve as a band-aid for any of the systems that do need fixing. Our education system turns out low-skilled people, or an amazing number of dropouts; they have children they can't afford, frequently as teenagers before they've learned any marketable skills; the women trying and failing to earn enough money to raise families on the kinds of jobs they can get with "teenage mom" skills; going on welfare to make ends meet; child support chasing down the fathers - frequently barely employable themselves - and garnishing much, sometimes nearly all, of the income to reimburse welfare; who go on to raise children who know nothing but the system they grew up under, who grow up to repeat the cycle.

Oh well. Maybe someday.

Doug from Bogus Gold has an excellent point or two in his post on the subject.

Posted by Mitch at March 28, 2005 06:06 AM | TrackBack

Maybe the Srtib put the Countryside Cafe example in the story for a sence of irony. As another example of irony, The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, works to increase the minimum wage. However, in 1995, they sued the state of California to get an exemption from the minimum wage and from overtime laws. According to their lawsuit, "The more that ACORN must pay each individual outreach worker - either because of minimum wage or overtime requirements - the fewer outreach workers it will be able to hire." (taken from Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now v. Department of Industrial Relations, 41 Cal. App. 4th 298, 301 (Cal. Ct. App. 1995).
Yep, irony can be pretyy ironic sometimes...

Posted by: Just Me at March 28, 2005 08:10 AM

Meanwhile, my fifteen year old son, with no experience at all, just got a part-time job, with all the under 16 restrictions, at Camp Snoopy at MOA for $7.60 / hour. Looks like you can do better than $6.00 / hour without much effort.

Posted by: Loren at March 28, 2005 02:26 PM

Once again, they seem to dredge some hopeless dude up who also claims to be a Vietnam Vet (which I do8ubt he is). Is that part of the MSM style book?

Posted by: JamesPh. at March 28, 2005 03:40 PM

I was thinking the same thing James. I wonder how often that claim is ever checked out before the story is published.

Posted by: the elder at March 28, 2005 06:56 PM

Axiom 1: The Star Tribune always favors the DFL position.

Axiom 2: The DFL always favors the union position.

Axiom 3: The unions always favor raising the minimum wage.

Query: But why should unions care? Surely none of their members are working for $5.25 an hour?

Deduction: Because union member's pay must be somehow tied to the minimum wage.

Theory: Union contracts might provide that members are guaranteed to earn a multiplier of the minimum wage. Therefore, a minimum wage increase would automatically result in a pay raise for union members.

Evidence: Unions generally deny this theory is correct, they usually claim to support increases in the minimum wage because they're such great guys, you know, fighting for a living wage and dignity for the working man.

Contrary Evidence: Unions generally dodge specific questions about the links between the contract and the law. Since you bring up Oregon in the column, here's a good example:

Perry Mason Evidence (the kind of utterly conclusive evidence that only comes out on cross, when the witness breaks down and cries "Yes, yes, I did it!"): Somebody forgot to tell the Oregon local union to keep mum. They let the cat out of the bag here:

Conclusion: The Star Tribune is shilling for a pay raise for middle-class union members, using the poor as cover.

So I'm wondering, would any of your readers know if any major Minnesota union contracts are tied to increases in the minimum wage? Maybe you might ask your readers to do some of the investigative reporting that has fallen out of fashion in certain circles in Minneapolis?

Posted by: Nate at April 1, 2005 09:23 AM
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