I’d been meaning to comment on this Jonathan Martin post for quite some time, but got distracted by my non-Seattle-Times-bashing pursuits. Writing on the paper’s editorial board blog, Martin echoes a trope that has grown quite popular with minimum wage concern-trolls these days: that a $15 minimum wage would ironically hurt poor people, by making it too expensive to provide vital human services!
As Martin correctly points out, human services are largely provided by low-wage workers—some of them college educated social workers who make only $12 to $13 an hour themselves. A $15 minimum wage would indeed cost Seattle’s not-for-profit human services agencies millions of dollars a year in additional labor costs. So Martin defends these “abysmal” low wages as “just the financial reality of holding together the human services safety net.”
Responding on Facebook, millionaire minimum wage advocate Nick Hanauer aptly describes Martin’s reasoning as “silly”:
Building an economy that generates huge human services needs by impoverishing most people by underpaying them, and then builds infrastructure to do damage control [on what] this poverty creates by employing people at poverty wages to do it, is economically inefficient, socially ineffective, and morally dubious.
If the argument made by Martin is correct, that raising the minimum wage is bad for the city because then we will be able to pay for less human services, then by definition he must also believe that if the minimum wage went down it would be good for the city because then we would be able to pay for more human services.
“So let me get this right,” Hanauer asks rhetorically, “You guys at the Seattle Times think that the answer to our problems is to impoverish more people, so that you can employ ever more people dispensing services to [the] poor?”
Well justified sarcasm aside, Hanauer’s larger point is that poverty is inextricably linked with the social ills these human services agencies are there to address. If we reduce poverty, argues Hanauer, we will also reduce demand for some of these human services.
It’s compelling logic. But Martin is having none of it. “That is, at best, utopian thinking,” scoffs Martin. “At worst, it’s a fantastical theory that will put a vise on already struggling human services.”
You know, because!
In his defense, Martin is a journalist, so he has an understandable self-interest in maintaining social services he may soon have a need to utilize. Also, the Seattle Times editorial board just does something awful to people. (Anybody else notice a hint of Sméagol finally peeking through her Gollum exterior the further Joni Balter distances herself from the Ring of Power?) But to simply dismiss as “fantastical” the suggestion that higher wages might reduce demand for services aimed at the poor—well, that’s just plain lazy.
The smarter retort would have been to argue that what cost savings might be realized from reduced demand cannot materialize fast enough to offset nonprofits’ short term rise in labor costs, whatever the length of the minimum wage phase-in. But that would bring Martin dangerously close to addressing the human service agencies’ real problem: We don’t spend enough on them! We just don’t.
If we really value the services these government-funded agencies provide, then we should instruct our government to spend the money necessary to pay our social workers, childcare workers, addiction counselors, and other human service providers a living wage! We don’t need to abandon a $15 minimum wage in order to protect human services—the City of Seattle just needs to spend more money. Simple as that. And if the money isn’t there, raise taxes. We can start by taxing millionaires like Hanauer.
One can only get to Martin’s dystopian vision if one starts from the position that raising tax revenue is not an option. But it is.
Seattle is a wealthy city. And we will only become wealthier still once a $15 minimum wage starts recirculating billions of dollars in additional wages through our local economy rather than having it extracted out-of-state in the form of higher profits to low-wage national chains. Even at $15 an hour, minimum wage workers will spend almost everything they earn—spending that will bump up local sales tax collections as well as the prospects of local businesses. So if spending an additional $10 million to $15 million a year in taxpayer dollars is the price we have to pay to help human service nonprofits transition to a $15 minimum wage, it will be well worth the investment over time.
Sometimes you can throw money at a problem. And that’s all it takes to address the human services trope that minimum wage opponents are cynically pushing.