A question about the living wage.

Here’s a pair of questions for supporters of “living wage” laws, or at least for those more knowledgeable about them than I am.

If the minimum wage should be a living wage, i.e., if it should be high enough that a full-time employee could reasonably survive on it alone, then by implication aren’t you saying that if people can’t support themselves, they shouldn’t have jobs at all?

If not, then what’s the distinction between “the law should require that full-time employees be paid enough to support themselves” and “if you can’t support yourself, you should not be legally permitted to have a job”?

(I don’t think I pulled a switcheroo here, or set up a straw man, or employed any other sort of rhetorical trickery. If I did, feel free to call it out, and then answer my questions anyways.)

20 thoughts on “A question about the living wage.

  1. This discussion always gets me fired up. I am showing restraint by limiting my comment to the following:

    I don’t find it ridiculous.


  2. I think I will never be visiting Seattle. Starbucks coffee was expensive already, it will now cost about 60% more.


    1. As someone who lives in Seattle, this actually isn’t true, at all. If you order a venti-vanilla-bean-skinny-macchiato-with-caramel-and-mocha then sure, you’re going to pay $8 for a coffee abomination but then you’re kind of an idiot in the first place and I’m okay with a company punishing you fiscally for it. There are literally three Starbucks one block north, west, and south of my apartment, and I pay $1.50 for a cup of coffee.

      The minimum wage in Seattle is already the highest in the country, and the proposed $15/hour minimum wage would be implemented over a 5-7 year period. Frankly, $15/hour is already low on the wage scale for the region. It’s not uncommon for servers to be paid $10/hour plus tips (as Washington state does not allow a lesser minimum wage for tipped employees like Florida and several other states), meaning that a server can easily make an average of $20/hour, and often much higher for up-scale restaurants, which are plentiful here.

      Coming from a Floridian economy, that sounds absurd. Cost of living is obviously higher in Seattle than it is in most of Florida, though this is true for any large city, and the only sphere that I can tangibly observe it is in housing, although the farther from city centre you get the closer housing costs come to what we’d be accustomed to in Florida.

      Otherwise, groceries are similarly priced, and sometimes even less expensive. Milk and produce is actually much cheaper than what you’d find in Publix, for example, largely due to state incentives to buy and sell locally sourced produce from Washington state farms. This helps to support local farmers and the regional agricultural market, and also decreases consumer costs that accumulate due to high transportation costs, etc. The most expensive items are tobacco products and bags (there is a city-wide plastic/paper bag “ban,” and if you forget to bring a reusable bag with you to any store, you’re charged $0.05 per bag needed), and cigarettes are highly taxed as the city increased punitive measures to curtail second hand smoke.

      Gas is similarly expensive, but the public transportation actually functions here, and bus/light rail tickets are affordable. We also have several “car to go” programs, wherein there are dozens of designated parking lots for “cars to go” (usually smart cars), which charge you $9 per hour to use.

      There are still low-wage jobs, (coming in at $9.19, the currently Washington state minimum wage, excluding SeaTac, which has successfully implemented a $15/hr minimum wage for a while now), mostly for fast food chains. However, Seattle is surprisingly sparse in chains of any kind. The chains that do exist are mostly outside of the city, definitely a drive.

      Within the actual neighborhoods and city centre of Seattle proper, the vast majority of restaurants and shops are locally owned mom & pop shops competing and thriving amongst themselves, without fear of being overrun by chains. This means that me (the consumer), gets to walk down the street and pick from twenty options of freaking delicious, locally sourced, healthy (sometimes), and shockingly cheap food fares.

      The only observable difference that I have seen from this huge jump in wages (coming from Florida), is that there are a lot less poor people. There are a lot less impoverished neighborhoods, a lot less people on assistance, and a lot of students who are able to go to school and work simultaneously to afford their own rent and bills comfortably just by serving at a restaurant down the street on the weekend. This isn’t to say poverty doesn’t exist at all, of course. There are still plenty of homeless, and still people who are just lazy and have no interest in being a contributing member to society. BUT – the people who do want to work and who do want to thrive, that opportunity exists for them here.

      And there is still of course divisions in class and income. While $20/hour sounds like a staggering wage for a server to make, you have to remember that Seattle has a thriving and fast growing tech and specialist sector. There are plenty of people in this city/region who work for Amazon, Microsoft, Yahoo, Boeing, and other major companies that are headquartered here, who earn well into the mid 6 figures. The mega wealthy still exist and thrive here. The only difference is those on the lower spectrum can just actually afford to feed and house themselves as well.


        1. I think there are probably a number of contributing factors, but a higher minimum wage certainly doesn’t hurt. If basic cost of living is x amount, then it will obviously be helpful to pay x as a minimum wage.

          Despite the claims of people who’ve never been to Seattle, the cost of living here is not significantly higher than it was in Orlando. This means that although costs are around the same (or slightly higher in some circumstances), people here have superior purchasing power versus similarly employed Floridians. This allows them to spend money on things like home and personal maintenance, and I think this directly contributes to the overall decrease of impoverished neighborhoods in the city.


        2. To Dr. Hmnahmna (as the thread won’t allow me to reply directly), I have. I’m already on my second lease in Seattle.

          Excluding ritzy neighborhoods like Capitol Hill and Queen Anne, or Bill’s mega-wealthy-invitation-only community across the way, rent here is approx. $100-200 more per month than comparable housing in Orlando, Florida. My first apartment, a one bedroom, located in the center of the u-district, was $1200/month versus an $1100/month apartment in downtown Orlando. I’m now living in a substantially larger two bedroom top floor apartment in the same neighborhood and paying $2400/month, which is actually less than some downtown Orlando 2/2’s. It’s only $250 more than a 2/2 lease held by my mother in Jacksonville, Florida.

          The point that I’m making is while the cost of living may be slightly higher in Seattle than it is Floridian cities, it’s really not that big of a difference. People brushing Seattle or SeaTac off as an outlier for having a successful economy despite having an unusually high minimum wage like to forget that it’s not just incredibly expensive here. If you want to talk about San Francisco, New York, and even Chicago far exceeds the cost of living of Seattle.


      1. With all of those government regulations meant ot help the people in Seattle, doesn’t it kind of baffle you that the cost of living is higher rather than lower? It seems all these regulations have in turned made it more expensive to live there.

        “but the public transportation actually functions here”
        When operating expenses exceed operating revenue every year, I wouldn’t call that functioning. Any other business (McDonalds, Publix, Blockbuster) would have to shut down in such circumstances. But when the government provides funding through citizens taxes, you don’t have to worry about silly things like income or bills (another reason why cost of living is higher).


        1. Wut. Any metropolitan area with a high population density and a low inventory of housing is going to experience a higher cost of living. Seattle is still substantially lower in cost of living than other similarly sized cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, DC, Boston, etc.

          What ‘government regulations’ are you referring to and in what way are they increasing the cost of living within the city?

          Referring to the functionality of the public transit system in the city, I mean it in a practical day-to-day basis, but if you want to talk operating costs and overall efficiency from a business perspective, there’s that argument, too. King County Metro (this includes light-rail, ferry and bus transit systems within Seattle) is the 8th largest transit agency in the United States and operates at a cost of about $3.70 per passenger with a profit of $0.40 cents on each passenger. Largely due to the recent construction and expansion of the Seattle light-rail to supply companies like Amazon, Microsoft and Google with more efficient routes, Seattle is currently in the red but they’re on point to be profitable within the next 5-7 years.

          Not really sure what made you think the success of the citys public transit system correlated at all to expense of living.


    1. I’ll give it a go.

      “If not, then what’s the distinction between “the law should require that full-time employees be paid enough to support themselves” and “if you can’t support yourself, you should not be legally permitted to have a job”?”

      I’m not entirely sure that I see the logical connection between the two. I support laws which mandate that employers should provide livable wages to their employees, meaning that should they work 40 hours a week, they should be able to afford the necessities of living, which is to say that they can afford food, housing, clothing, and I’d even go so far as to include medical insurance, although that’s not something American society typically defines as a necessity.

      Now, if this exists, and a person is unable to support themselves, I think the underlying conditions for their inability to support themselves is an important consideration, though not all that significant in the finality of the analysis. Are they unable to support themselves because they spend frivolously, meaning they might spend their income on non-necessities or luxuries, like going out, gambling, purchasing non-essential material goods, etc.. If this is the case, then I don’t pretend that society nor the legislative system bears any responsibility, but I don’t think that this would logically lead us to an exclusion of these persons from holding jobs at all.

      If the underlying condition is not a personal choice like described above, but perhaps a disability, then I still wouldn’t agree that they should be barred from employment. Perhaps they are incapable of work and then they don’t, or perhaps they’re capable of part-time work and they do, but either way I see no reason to jump between “paying a livable wage” and “if you’re unable to support yourself, you shouldn’t be permitted to have a job.”

      Maybe I’m missing the connection?


      1. In trying to be succinct in my formulation, I may have glossed over an underlying assumption.

        Generally, employers pay their employees less than the total value added by the employee. Simple example: the employee generates $20 of revenue an hour, so the employer pays that employee less than $20 an hour. To pay more than $20 an hour would cause the employer to lose money.

        So here’s what I was getting at:

        Assume the living wage is set at $15/hr. There are people out there whose productivity isn’t worth $15/hr. There are all sorts of reasons this might be the case: youth, old age, illness, disability, personality conflicts, lack of skills. They won’t get hired.

        There are exceptions. Some bosses/companies are willing to take losses on some employees in the short run for whatever reason (charity, skill-building, fun in the workplace), but workers whose productivity is less than $15/hr are out there, and they generally won’t be able to find work in a jurisdiction with a minimum wage of $15/hr.

        So if the living wage is what you need to be paid to support yourself, and your productivity is less than the living wage, then your productivity is less than what you need to be paid to support yourself. Living wage laws prevent companies from paying you in accordance with your productivity (i.e., less than the living wage), which means you’re not going to get hired unless the boss is feeling charitable.


        1. Yet again I’m late. I understand your logic better than before, and I agree with the rationale. I guess then, for me, and I assume for at least some others, it comes down to a social-economic issue rather than a purely mathematical-economic issue. I understand the productivity vs. wage argument, and that this is a significant factor for businesses and corporations in their bottom line. We are a capitalistic society, after all, and businesses typically exist solely for the purpose of gaining capital.

          But I think there’s an issue when working 40 hours a week does not guarantee a person or family sufficient food, housing, or clothing, and I think this is hugely problematic. What is the incentive to work or educate yourself if there is not a strong likelihood of a good outcome for the individual? Workers are trading their time and energy for capital. Why bother to participate in this process if the tradeoff doesn’t leave you able to feed yourself? Why not go into a nefarious and illegal profession instead of wasting tuition payments and time on being a productive member of society if your productivity is deemed to be below the threshold of a livable wage?

          I will always be a product of a capitalist society, and I do not think that there is anything inherently wrong with the goal of a business or corporation being profits. But I also think that as such an ingrained part of our society, businesses and corporations also have a responsibility to pay their workers living wages, even if this means decreasing profit somewhat. After all, if people en masse are unable to afford the necessities of living based on their jobs, business will ultimately decline as a result of decreased purchasing power. It’s in the business or corporations best interest to take a loss now (through increased wages) in order to ensure stabilized or growing profits later (through increased purchasing power), no?


  3. Although not a supporter of Min Wage, here’s my attempt to answer your questions:

    “the law should require that full-time employees be paid enough to support themselves”

    This would effectively raise the wage of individuals currently employed at wages below self supporting level.

    “if you can’t support yourself, you should not be legally permitted to have a job”?

    This would effectively terminate the jobs of individuals currently employed at wages below self supporting level.

    Both would result in fewer individuals being hired in the future and prevent any hiring below a self supporting level. As an added note though, this self supporting level would not be the same as a national minimum wage. What it takes to support the living of an indvidual is different for every person and fluctuates with health, circumstances, environment, and more.


    1. You pointed out the semantic difference, and I should’ve been more careful in formulating my questions, but that aside I think your analysis is correct.


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