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Minimum Wage Debate Focusing Less on Poverty, More on Lobbying

Just fill in whatever labels you’d like on the
y axis and x axis to suit your needs./Jkv

A sharp piece of reporting in the New York Times this week pulls the very thin mask off the expertise-for-hire industry that clusters around the District of Columbia. Reporter Eric Lipton paid a visit to the Employment Policies Institute, a nonprofit “economic research center,” and discovered that it just happened to share an office—not an office building, an office—with a public relations firm that makes loud and frequent use of its research in the service of its restaurant industry clients.

“The sign at the entrance is for Berman and Company, as the Employment Policies Institute has no employees of its own,” Lipton writes. “Mr. Berman’s for-profit advertising firm, instead, ‘bills’ the nonprofit institute for the services his employees provide to the institute.”

In particular, the Employment Policies Institute manages to prove over and over again that it would be bad news to raise the minimum wage, because it would devastate workers at the lower end of the labor market. Especially don’t raise the minimum wage for restaurant employees, because science.

One depressing piece of this grim cycle of fakery is that it costs a lot of donated money for your very own left hand to commission research papers from your very own right hand: “$2.4 million in listed donations received in 2012 . . . from only 11 contributors, who wrote checks for as much as $500,000 apiece.” Imagine how much you could do with that kind of money if you, say for example, worked in a shitty restaurant job.

More depressing still, however, is the very nature of the debate, as Berman and Company works to give the Employment Policies Institute the tools to give Berman and Company ammunition to use against the premise that an increase in the minimum wage would significantly reduce poverty. Person by person, it surely would have that effect for the people getting the higher wage, who would take bigger paychecks as an unambiguous blessing.

But the premise requires an underlying assumption, a shrugging acceptance of a permanent American underclass assigned to the minimum wage for life. One way out of the poverty that comes with a life of minimum wage labor is to get a higher minimum wage; the other is to escape the minimum wage altogether through affordable education, effective vocational training, and the personal opportunity inherent in a society that accepts the real possibility of class mobility. Notice which one we’re bothering to debate. The emerging theme of the twenty-first century economy is that a large and growing group of people are stuck at the bottom, but we can maybe discuss some ways to make the bottom a little more comfortable.

Anyway, that’s how it seems to me. But I’m waiting for the definitive report from the Employment Policies Institute.