Editor’s Note: Lowell Kalapa’s Dec. 1 column, “Lowell Kalapa: Debate over ‘Minimum Wage’ Shows Ignorance,” drew this response from Victor Geminiani, the Executive Director of the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice.

The only true measure of any theory is how well it describes reality. Yet after nearly a century of repeating the same tired arguments, opponents of the minimum wage remain undeterred by the fact that their prophesies of economic doom have never been borne out.

We are told (yet again) that increasing the minimum wage will cost the economy jobs, as employers seek to control labor costs. However, national studies have shown time and again that there is no reliable correlation between increases in the minimum wage and job losses.

Statistics provided by the Hawaii Department of Labor and Industrial Relations just this past year show continued, and in two cases accelerated, job growth following the last four increases in the minimum wage. While it may be “common sense” that employers will hire less or layoff workers, it simply is not what actually happens.

We are told (yet again) that an increase in the minimum wage will destroy small businesses. However, this ignores the fact that many small businesses pay their workers more than minimum wage. This is because small businesses can ill afford the costs associated with high worker turn-over, and therefore value their employees and want them to be able to survive on what they are paid. Contrast this with the businesses that are really opposed to a minimum wage increase: national food chains and big box stores. These large mainland companies oppose a minimum wage increase because they view their employees as fungible commodities that can be replaced and retrained as quickly as they are lost.

Lastly, we are told that the minimum wage was never intended to be a living wage but rather it was designed for entry-level employees and unskilled kids. Proponents of that theory have a hard time ignoring President Roosevelt’s 1937 statement calling for a minimum wage that provided “all our able-bodied working men and women a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.” Or his belief in 1938 that his proposed wage bill was “legislation to end starvation wages and intolerable hours.”

But even if opponents’ claims that the minimum wage was never meant to provide for a family were accurate, modern realities are such that it ought to. Contrary to opponents’ belief that only unskilled high school kids work minimum wage jobs to learn how to be employees, the vast majority of minimum wage workers (76 percent) are over the age of 19. And contrary to opponents’ claims that it is just for low-skill workers, roughly 46 percent of minimum wage workers have at least some college under their belt. Whatever the original intent of the minimum wage may have been, many people today are dependent upon it just to survive.

At the end of the day, all of the unsubstantiated, theoretical arguments advanced by minimum wage opponents about the possible harm to our economy are merely a distraction from the real issues at play. Those real issues include deciding how much more damage will we allow to be done to our low income working families by paying wages so low that a person working 40 hours a week for every week of the year will still live in poverty? How long must taxpayers continue to subsidize business decisions to maximize profits by forcing workers to receive government funded food stamps, medical coverage and welfare in order just to survive?

If the time is not right to adjust the minimum wage now, when we are fortunate to have a relatively strong economy, should we wait until we encounter another economic downturn and delay wage equity even longer? How long will we allow business interests in paying poverty level wages severely impact on our nation’s dramatically accelerating income disparity, shrinking middle class and weaker consumer spending? Are we still a people that believes that the American dream is still achievable by all who play by the rules, work hard and show loyalty to our nations basic ideals?

Those are the questions we should be asking ourselves as the debate is joined on whether the Legislature in this upcoming session ought to require low wage employers to end their practice of paying poverty wages to Hawaii’s workers and begin restoring dignity and fairness in the workplace

About the author: Victor Geminiani is the Executive Director of the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice.

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