Minimum Wage and the Cost of Good Intentions

After recent efforts in Congress to increase the federal minimum wage, will some black men end up paying for a minimum wage hike?

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Here's Joseph C. Phillips on efforts to increase the federal minimum wage.

Mr. JOSEPH C. PHILLIPS (Actor and Columnist): In her book, "Open Wide the Freedom Gates", civil rights activist Dorothy Height describes a meeting where women of the Mississippi Delta talked about how certain federal programs affect their lives.

One woman said, when minimum wage came in, our hours were shortened. So we do double the work in half the time. This woman was one of the real-life people actually affected by minimum wage, not an Ivory Tower intellectual or activist. In very plain language, the story shows that economic laws remain true, and how they affect the lives of people are real.

Now, as Height's story attest, a minimum wage increase can actually harm those it's intended to help. We may not wish it so, but the laws of economics - which are neither cruel nor kind - say differently.

Federal and state governments are perfectly able to set the price of labor. They are, however, unable to change the value of labor, and business owners -like all consumers - seek value for their money. A job that's real value has been overpriced by minimum wage laws will be eliminated or absorbed by other more productive workers.

If past is prologue, sometime in March, a major newspaper will publish a report describing the deepening plight of young black men. The story will detail reasons, including incarceration rates and lack of education and employment. The story will not, however, discuss the impact minimum wage laws have on black unemployment rates, or how black men on the margins are now in competition for low-skill jobs with illegal labor unburdened by federal or state wage laws.

In 1954, the unemployment rate for both black and white teenagers was 14 percent. In the decades that followed, the minimum wage increased sharply - so did unemployment for black teens. That figure now stands at 42 percent.

Now people in Congress will continue to make impassioned speeches about how raising the minimum wage will lift the poor from destitution. But it's also more than likely there will be continued unemployment for black men living on the margins, and a hobbling of the opportunity to build job skills and an employment record that will lead to better-paying jobs in the future. It will mean men marginally educated with few or no skills resort to the street hustle to make ends meet and end up in the prison system.

That is the more realistic result of minimum wage increases. None of us wishes it so, but as an anonymous Mississippi woman made plain in 1965, there are real-life consequences to all of our good intentions.

CHIDEYA: Joseph C. Phillips is an actor and columnist living in Los Angeles.

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