Carson’s Commentary: A graduated system is the answer to America’s minimum wage problem

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Florida passes a $15 an hour minimum wage amendment. But the minimum wage argument isn’t as black and white as it may seem; there’s a middle ground Swick calls the “graduated minimum wage system.” Illustration by Alisia Gruendel/The Daily Campus.

While the rest of the country honed in on the presidential election early this month, the state of Florida passed a $15 an hour minimum wage amendment. The amendment, formally known as “Florida Amendment 2, $15 Minimum Wage Initiative” is effective Sept. 30, 2021 — when Florida’s minimum wage will rise from $8.56 to $10 an hour. From there, the wage increases $1 every year until it reaches $15 an hour in 2026. 

With the passage of Amendment 2, Florida became the eighth U.S. state to enact a $15 minimum wage initiative (California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York had done so previously). The stances on the “fight for $15” need no introduction; employees love to be paid more, while small businesses owners do not love paying them more. 

Even on an issue that seems so black and white, there is a middle ground that I like to call the “graduated minimum wage system.” Such a system is immensely preferable to its alternatives, as it provides the only way to balance the issues created by stagnant wages and small business devastation alike. Allow me to explain. 

The term “graduated” comes from the core component of my proposal: the age of an employee. In most states, children can legally begin working at the age of 16. Most minors (aged 16 and 17) who work are high school students not responsible for supporting families, so the money they earn primarily goes toward education and personal savings. Since implementing a dramatic wage increase would leave many unskilled teenagers without job opportunities, I propose a modest raise to the federal minimum — from $7.25 to $8 an hour — for this group. 

When children become legal adults at age 18, it is reasonable to expect that the value of their labor should increase. In addition to having high school diplomas and more life experience, many 18-year-olds take up the burden of more financial responsibilities. These responsibilities include loans for college students and living expenses for those who move out upon reaching adulthood. For these reasons, a $9-an-hour federal minimum wage suits the 18-20 age group. 

As most college students know, you are not truly an adult until the age of 21. 21 year olds are recent college graduates or decently experienced in their trade. Some of them are even thinking about starting a family. Thus, the least we can do is to use the power of the federal government to compensate our adults with a $10 hourly minimum wage. 

Above anything else, a graduated wage system encourages growth for young employees. For many of them, this growth simply results from obtaining a job in the first place. From 2000 to 2018, the unemployment rate of 16-19 year-olds declined by over 17%. A decline of this magnitude puts today’s young adults well behind the previous generation in career development, so the increases I have proposed for both the 16-17 and 18-20 age groups would provide greater incentives for teenagers to return to work and reverse the trend of youth unemployment figures. 

For teens who already hold jobs, a wage incentive creates a culture that encourages job performance and even promotion. Consider a restaurant busser, which is a common job for 16-year-olds in America today. The task of clearing plates may not be worth $9 or $10 an hour, but a 16-year-old busser who puts forth a strong effort could earn the privilege of working as a $9-an-hour server upon turning 18, and even a $10-an-hour bartender upon turning 21. 

As I have alluded to, the graduated system is wonderful for young people. But those with whom I have discussed my proposal have asked, “well, what about the real adults?” They have a point. In 2017, people 25 and older comprised about half of all minimum-wage employees. 

Many of these employees work in vastly undervalued professions such as child care, and they often reside in inner cities and other low-income communities. Minimum wage jobs were never intended for those living on their own and supporting families, but the unfortunate reality is that too many people now rely on these incomes to do just that. Though anything beyond a $10 hourly minimum in the name of alleviating financial stress of these individuals is detrimental to business interests (particularly in areas with a low cost of living), moving to federal minimum wage $10 is still a solid increase for independent adults.  

Simply put, not all minimum-wage employees are in the same stage of life. Some are 16-year-old high school students, while others are 40-year-old married parents. It is time we have a federal wage policy that reflects this reality; such a policy must abstain from disrupting the delicate balance between employees’ desires and small businesses’ demands. 

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