Updated: January 23, 2014 6:33AM
On an emotional level, I have cheered for protesters demanding a minimum-wage increase.
Anyone who has earned the minimum wage or was raised on low wages can empathize with the despair that exists for working adults struggling to provide food and shelter for their families on $8.25 an hour in Illinois.
It used to be mostly teens who rang up orders at McDonalds. Now it seems to be moms or dads who piece together part-time jobs to pay bills.
Wage protests early this month brought to mind a conversation I had with a flight attendant a few months ago. I told her how my father worked as a custodian for the same major airline she worked for and how he never made much more than minimum wage but received top-notch health insurance and lifetime flight benefits, as well as a small pension for life.
That low-paying job was in many ways a great job.
Her response: “You know, they contract out those jobs now.”
It’s a cost-saving measure that serves companies’ bottom lines: Low-level jobs get farmed out to companies that come up with zilch in employee benefits. Many companies dodge benefit packages by hiring part-time employees.
This compounds the bleak outlook for low-wage earners.
Minimum wage was easier to swallow when a company sweetened the deal with health insurance or a pension. Those days are long gone.
On a practical level, however, strikers calling for a higher minimum wage might want to re-evaluate their priorities. Otherwise, they might price themselves out of jobs.
“People currently hawking this are getting loonier and loonier,” Allen Sanderson, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, said in an interview early this month regarding protest organizers calling for a $15 minimum wage and targeting fast-food chains.
They could be courting disaster. A $15 minimum wage would suddenly make that job more appealing to a far more skilled candidate, Sanderson pointed out. Such jobs would not be scarce for teens but nonexistent.
And in the fast-food industry those jobs would disappear. Friendly faces would be replaced by automated touch screens that let you create your own burger or taco. We already have seen this at banks, airports, car washes and movie theaters. It’s surprising the fast-food industry has held out this long.
Sanderson believes the government should be pushing education for low-income earners by way of vouchers and additional tax credits. This route isn’t appealing to many politicians because a higher minimum wage, which even the president is pushing, is the quick fix voters want.
Raising minimum wage leaves the larger problem unaddressed, that of unskilled labor.
Sanderson spoke bluntly about the dismal future for those who do not pursue education. “Being unskilled is brutal” in a high-tech economy, he said.
This isn’t necessarily about going to college. It’s about immigrants learning English, high-school dropouts getting GEDs, high-school graduates learning a trade or enrolling in community college, even if it’s one class at a time.
There are nonprofits in Chicago, a few of which have been featured here, that focus on educating low-income earners through relatively short-term programs to get them to a more livable wage.
There is self-respect and a sense of accomplishment to be gained in taking any of these paths.
Education is the answer for almost every one of us.
Those who do not pursue it risk being left behind.