Keep Your Day Classes, Minimum Wage Hike No Fix

Congress is poised to pass the first federal minimum-wage increase in a decade, going from the current $5.15 an hour to $7.25. Would the increase be a victory for those on minimum wage? Or is there a lesson here about staying in school and finishing college to get a job that pays even better?

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Now we've got more on the politics of money with commentator John McCann sharing his thoughts on the recent vote in the House to raise the national minimum wage.

JOHN MCCANN: I wanted Nikes, some Converse, just any kind of shoes with a respectable monochrome. But mom and daddy were always ready to put me in some Cougars from Pick'n Pay. There was no Payless shoe store back in the day. Or they get me those Treks from K-Mart.

So I got a job. Went to work bagging groceries and pushing carts at the local Winn-Dixie Supermarket. Started back before the customer could even request plastic sacks. It was all about them brown paper bags, Jack. Double bagging them if you came through my line and caught a sale on a bunch of can goods that needed extra stability to keep the cream corn and butter beans from busting through.

And there were those old ladies who'd tell me don't mush my bread. Back then, minimum wage in North Carolina wasn't but $3.35 an hour. But that was great money because, unlike a lot of kids who had to work to help their parents pay bills, my entrance into the workforce was just about learning to be responsible as far as showing up to work on time and doing a good job once I got there and all that. Oh, and being able to get the kind of shoes I wanted.

And then to be in that situation now with Congress poised to pass the first federal minimum-wage increase in a decade, going from the current $5.15 an hour to $7.25, I'd be sitting pretty like Arnold and Willis on "Diff'rent Strokes." Then again, I guess it's all relative. Stuff like those loaves of bread the old lady dared me to smash cost more now. Teens behind the wheel are paying more for gas; and kids today are cell-phone junkies and many have to support their own text-messaging habits.

And here's what I'm wondering: Would increasing the minimum wage be a victory for the supermarket cashiers and short orders cooks all over this country? Or is it a lesson instead about staying in school and finishing college to get a job that pays even better? Because if it essentially paycheck to paycheck for me it was my bachelor's degree, then what in the world would I do if I had to feed my wife and baby girls on minimum wage?

I mean let's do the math here. Say you're making $7.25 an hour. OK, times 40 hours a week. OK. Multiply that by 52 weeks in a year equals $15,080. Now that's before Uncle Sam comes begging and takes his cut. And that's assumed you even get 40 hours a week for this minimum-wage gig, because the boss man might cut you back so he won't have to kick out for your medical benefits.

So the minimum-wage increase is definitely a lesson about getting that college degree. Then again, as much as college cost these days, by the time you graduate and deal with them loans, you're entry-level job probably won't put you much further ahead than the kids who only finished high school to make minimum wage.

And nobody is promising now that the entry level job will even work out or how long it will last, which brings us to lesson number two. No matter how many formulas and equations you learned in college, make sure you never forget this one - paper or plastic.

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CHIDEYA: John McCann is a columnist for the Herald Sun in Durham, North Carolina.

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