We ended slavery, so why exploit people with a $7.25 minimum wage?

As Americans, we have always tried to do better, to live up to the ideals upon which we were founded 240 years ago.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote about the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal,” but excluded women, we corrected his mistake. When he wrote that power is derived from the consent of the governed, but left out nonwhite citizens, we corrected his mistake. And when the Founding Fathers allowed Americans to buy and sell their fellow humans as property — America’s original sin — we corrected this injustice.

Or did we? More than 150 years after we ended slavery, we continue to exploit human labor in a misguided attempt to maximize profits for the aristocrats and oligarchs. 

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The slaves and indentured servants who helped maintain elitist bureaucrats’ station in life were paid nothing for their labor. After nearly two-and-a-half centuries of progress — 240 years in which America has progressed from being “young, scrappy and hungry” to being a global super power — we have moved from unpaid slavery to a $7.25 federal minimum wage. We are still exploiting the least of us for the benefit of those with the most.

 

Is this the best we can do? Is this progress we can be proud of?

Working 40 hours per week at the federal minimum wage, a worker will earn just $290 per week or $15,080 per year before taxes — assuming that worker takes no vacation days, never gets sick, and works Christmas, Thanksgiving and every other holiday. That leaves just $1,250 per month to cover essential needs like housing, food, clothing and transportation. It’s just not sustainable.

Families supported by minimum wage jobs are excluded from America’s promise. There is no opportunity to spend time with children, to build wealth or to even participate in civic life. We may have left the plantations, but for too many Americans, the realities aren’t much different today than they were at Mt. Vernon.

To help these families survive — not succeed, but merely survive — the government has developed a number of programs like the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), food stamps and Medicaid. This helps fill the gap between a full day’s pay and the dollars needed to subsist, but these programs were intended as a safety net, not as a subsidy to corporations who refuse to pay even a subsistence wage. 

That is exactly what they have become — some corporations even help their employees with the application process for public assistance.

But welfare comes with strings and a stigma. And what clearer, and more humiliating, sign can an employer send to an employee than to say, “We don’t even think you’re worth a living wage”?

Government programs, while valuable, are not the sole solution, except for those who are truly the most vulnerable members of our society. The solution is to guarantee that every American who works a full-time job can earn a salary that meets their basic needs and lets them participate in their family, in public life and in the economy. The solution is to attach value to the jobs our neighbors do — and to our neighbors themselves — by showing them that we attach value to their labor. The solution is to rid ourselves of our original sin and remove the last vestiges of a slave culture we claim to have rejected more than a century and a half ago. 

The solution is to raise the minimum wage and ensure that it’s a living wage.

The moral argument for doing so is clear. The economic argument should be clear as well. In an economy that is 70 percent driven by consumer demand, putting more money into people’s pockets means putting more money into the economy, and the closer a worker is to “just making ends meet,” the faster every additional dollar they have is returned to the economy — a concept known as the velocity of money.

Put another way, raising the minimum wage instantly pumps millions of dollars into the economy. It’s good for the individual, good for business and good for the country as a whole. 

In nine years, America will celebrate our 250th birthday. We have come a long way in that time, but we still have far to go. Will we be a nation that has moved closer to the ideals of equality so critical to our founding, or will we still be struggling to erase the lingering residue of slavery, our original sin? 

If we truly do hope to be an ever more perfect union, the answer should be clear.

Morris Pearl is chairman of the Patriotic Millionaires, a group of wealthy Americans dedicated to equality for all people. He was previously a managing director for investment firm BlackRock.

Marc Morial is president of the National Urban League and the former mayor of New Orleans.


The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.