Throughout the Great Recession, we’ve seen a troubling number of people unemployed and simply unable to find work. Equally destructive for our economy are those who have work but are still unable to support themselves. We call these the underemployed, an exploding portion of the population whose incomes do not cover all expenses. Nearly 20% of U.S. citizens officially fall in this category, including many families with young children who are unable to put food on the table, find adequate housing, receive appropriate medical care, or cover child care expenses. Problems like these often leave us searching for someone to blame.
Adding to the problems of underemployment, the first people we usually blame are the underemployed themselves. Our economic mythology tells us that the underemployed are lazy, unintelligent, or made bad decisions that got them in this mess. If only they got another job or got a real education, then they would be able to feed their children. We can blame all we want, but all around us people are hurting. Even if it’s true that the underemployed exhibit all the negative stereotypes we have of them, don’t they deserve to have their basic necessities met?
On the contrary, the underemployed are often hard-working Americans who drive our economy. They are the people working two or three minimum wage jobs to make the lives of the well-off easier. They include people who own their own businesses, have a college degree, or work harder and more unpleasant jobs than most can imagine. If they are “lucky,” they often work 60 hour weeks between jobs for little over $20,000 a year at minimum wage. With rising food, gasoline, and health care prices, even 10 or 12 hour days are not adding up.
Because the government can’t fix the prices of basic commodities, the solution to the problem is to fix what we can control: wages. Even presumed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has been open to the idea of raising the minimum wage, and said it needs to be assessed every two years. (Recently he has abandoned this idea, and even suggested that it be lowered.) It’s time both parties take a serious look at Romney’s deserted proposal. Raising the minimum wage not only improves work satisfaction and quality of life, it also gives citizens the money they need to spend on necessities. This money comes back to businesses and advances the overall economic situation.
After the benefits of a minimum wage increase, the policy effectively becomes cost-neutral for the economy. Putting money back into the hands of consumers is like the conservative-backed tax breaks and the liberal-supported social programs. Raising the minimum wage is a win-win for citizens and businesses alike, but most of all for the moral qualities of justice and fairness that we supposedly embrace. Opponents say we can’t raise the minimum wage in a down economy, but a down economy is actually the perfect situation to rejuvenate American citizens and put people back into well-paying jobs. If we are serious about getting American back to work and thriving again, then we should start with the small step of a higher minimum wage.