Raising the minimum wage has always been about the dignity, as well as the wages, of working people. We who place so much value on our ability to provide for ourselves and our families should recognize the importance of ensuring a dignified living wage for all full-time workers.
Yet during the debate on the minimum wage in the Pennsylvania House in May, Republicans in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives showed us what they think of low-wage workers. They proposed amendments to the minimum wage bill that are classic examples of blaming the victim. One would exclude workers without a high school degree, or the equivalent, from the protection of the minimum wage. Another would require workers to pass a literacy test to earn the minimum wage.
These representatives—many of whom come from districts in which ten percent or more of the population do not have a high school degree and who complained about the government protecting their lives by requiring them to wear masks—must believe that hard-working people need their paternalistic hand to tell them how to live their lives.
These amendments show us that too many Republicans are motivated by a toxic individualism that assumes people making low wages are at fault for not trying hard enough while those of us who make higher wages deserve all the credit for doing so.
I was lucky enough to grow up in a small town in upstate New York where I had friends from every economic class. I learned then how much our economic success is a product of luck as well as pluck.
As a young child, I was surprised when I visited friends whose families had few, if any, books in their homes. But I was not surprised when, in later years, they didn’t read as well as my upper-middle-class friends did. And some of us who did well in school had the advantage of pre-K education or of parents who had the time and expertise to support us in school or who could pay for extra help. They could also pay for the private lessons in science and art, as well as summer camps, that stimulated our minds. These advantages were not available to our friends who came from families with lower incomes.
As a teenager, I—like my friends, poor and rich—did a lot of stupid things, that sent some of us on a downward path. But those of us who came from upper-middle-class families were protected from the mistakes we all made—like getting in trouble with the police, goofing off at school and failing a class or two, being forced to leave college or an apprenticeship program, getting pregnant or getting someone pregnant. We could afford lawyers, tutors, private guidance counselors, and trips to a state where abortion was legal. When we made mistakes, we got second or third chances. Our friends from low-income families had far less margin for error. When they made the mistakes that we all make, they had to drop out of high school or college and take a dead-end job to provide for the children they had when only young themselves.
When we looked for summer jobs, those of us who came from middle-class or union families had connections that helped us get jobs that paid well and / or gave us the kind of help we needed to get ahead in the future. Some of us could take unpaid internships that helped us get into a better college. Our friends from low-income families without those connections started at the bottom in jobs with little future.
That’s not to say that those of us who had the right parents didn’t work hard to get where we are today. We did work hard as teenagers and young adults, and we work hard at our jobs today. But our friends who didn’t have the same opportunities we did also worked hard then and still do today. But they didn’t have the opportunities, or even more importantly, the extra chances that we had. Some of them, with extraordinary talent and ambition, did manage to make it into the upper middle class. But many did not. And some have struggled their whole lives, no matter how hard they have worked.
Unequal opportunities in our society—as well as an economy dominated by large corporations that hold wages down for working people—are why we must ensure that Pennsylvanians receive a living wage that respects their hard work.
For if we are honest with ourselves, none of us are self-made people. And as the philosopher Morris Raphael Cohen once expressed: Anyone who thinks they are self-made is no credit to their maker.