Black youth unemployment sits at almost 40 percent. Overall black unemployment is around 14 percent. This is the case we face today, even though black unemployment in the 1930s and ’40s was actually lower than white unemployment. Isn’t it generally assumed that the economic situation of blacks has improved since then? What happened?
The minimum wage happened. When a person’s skills or productivity do not have value to an employer in excess of the minimum wage, that person will not get hired. So, when a young black teenager drops out of our ailing education system — which happens a lot by the way — he often cannot find a job, even though he is clearly an able-bodied, capable individual. When asked, slightly more than 90 percent of economists agree that minimum wage laws create unemployment. And yet the minimum wage law enjoys more than 80 percent support among the general American public. Black politicians are some of the most ardent supporters of the minimum wage. Where is the disconnect?
Many respond to the idea of getting rid of the minimum wage by claiming it protects workers from exploitation by employers.
First, I simply do not agree with the claim that workers would be “exploited” without the minimum wage. If an employer were to pay a worker less without the law, it would not be obvious to me how that constitutes exploitation of the employee.
If the firm lowers the person’s wage and that person keeps working, then clearly that person still finds it beneficial to work. No one forces them to, and therefore, there is no exploitation. One could perhaps make the argument that they are no longer being paid a “fair” wage for the work they are doing, but what does that mean? What is “fair”? Who are you or I, a third party, to say what is “fair” or not in a private, voluntary transaction? If I negotiate with someone to sell my home, and the eventual sale is lower than my initial asking price, does that mean I was “exploited”? Hardly.
Second, if one wants to talk about exploitation, perhaps we should look at how high school students across the nation are essentially forced to accept unpaid internships because companies cannot legally pay anything below minimum wage. And what about the many teenagers and young adults who cannot even afford to do unpaid internships since, after living expenses, they often become financially unsustainable?
What about the local New Haven high school students, who can’t get a job without any experience, and who can’t get experience without first having a job? They don’t have that parent or family friend who can give them a job just to be nice. Only 2 percent of workers above the age of 24 actually earn the minimum wage, but on the other hand, half of all minimum wage workers are under 24. It’s our youth who are being harmed. The minimum wage delays and inhibits entry into the labor force, where young people can begin to develop skills and build a resume attractive to future employers or educational institutions.
President Obama stated in his first debate that he wanted to “strengthen the ladder into the middle class.” But he and other supporters of the minimum wage have taken the ladder that normally sits at ground level — where anyone with any modicum of education or skill can grab on and start climbing — and pulled it up. It now hovers where only some of us are tall enough to reach the lowest rung, leaving the rest to suffer.
And many of our black youth simply do not currently have the skills to warrant being paid at least the minimum wage. With a lower or nonexistent minimum wage, we could get them climbing the ladder to the middle class sooner, rather than allowing them to wallow in the ghetto of the high-spirited, but low-skilled.
Nnamdi Iregbulem is a senior in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .