November 22, 2004
Part of the ILCA Media Blackout series on underreported labor stories
Bush’s success in reducing the value of the minimum wage in each of the past four years has wreaked havoc with the lives of millions of working Americans, but it does not exist as a media story.
The minimum wage loses value as the cost of living rises. Were the government to take action to partially correct for this loss in value, the media would cover that story, but would refer to it as “raising the minimum wage.”
The minimum wage has lost well over a third of its value to inflation since 1968 and has not been adjusted since 1997. Correcting the current $5.15 to $9 would not be a new experiment, but would restore the minimum wage to a value it held during years when the U.S. economy performed better than it does now. Contrary to myth, there is no correlation between the value of the minimum wage over the years and the unemployment rate. One doesn’t rise or fall with the other.
Two years ago, Bush’s proposal to gut what was left of welfare included elimination of the minimum wage for workfare workers. He lost on that point, but only after thousands of angry people, organized by the Center for Community Change and ACORN, protested at the headquarters of the Department of Health and Human Services and took over the lobby of the Heritage Foundation. The media paid attention for 24 hours in March of 2002. Since then, from the media’s point of view, Bush hasn’t done anything, so there’s nothing to cover.
Over the past ten years, two important trends have developed, both of which the media has largely ignored. First, states and localities have taken matters into their own hands. Since Florida and Nevada passed initiatives on November 2nd, there are now 14 states and a couple of cities with minimum wage laws set higher than the federal level. There are also 123 cities and counties with living wage laws applying higher minimum wage levels to jobs dependent on public funds, including work on government contracts or at companies benefiting from corporate welfare. In not a single city or county have any of the dire predictions of job loss so often recited by the media materialized. And most living wage ordinances are indexed to automatically increase with the cost of living.
Second, more and more economists have shifted their positions, to the extent that a general consensus has emerged that restoring value to the minimum wage would benefit the economy. Even leading opponents of the living wage movement who continue to predict negative effects, concede that there are positive effects that outweigh them. These effects include lifting families out of poverty, allowing parents to work less and spend more time with their children, increasing consumer spending by workers, and improving productivity.
In addition, public opinion in survey after survey consistently favors restoring value to the minimum wage by a large majority. With two new states, and red ones at that, having just joined the list of those who will help themselves whether Congress helps them or not, with the new minority leader of the Senate announcing that the minimum wage is a top priority, and with Bush and Kerry having offered their support during the campaign to competing minimum wage bills, one might expect some significant interest in this topic from the media.
One would be disappointed. A search of the Nexis database in recent weeks turns up few substantive articles or transcripts on the minimum wage, including none quoting any economists claiming to have studied it, and none quoting any workers earning it. Instead, Larry King treated us on November 16 to the baseless and disproven claims of that expert on wage policies, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said he had vetoed a minimum wage “increase” in order to protect jobs.
On the 21st, the Contra Costa Times promoted this nonsense by writing: “No one should expect the governor to support any measure that could harm business growth, including tax increases, higher minimum wages, or bureaucratic burdens on businesses.”
The only support in the media for restoring value to the minimum wage is either found in letters to the editor (there are a good number of those) or in appeals to xenophobia and racism. On November 17th, Lou Dobbs on CNNfn announced: “The results of our poll tonight, 82 percent of you say raising the minimum wage would attract more U.S. citizens to industries now dominated by illegal aliens, 18 percent disagree.” Two days earlier, Fox News had treated us to this exchange between Pat Buchanan and Bill O’Reilly:
BUCHANAN: Look, a lot of them work in a job slightly above the minimum wage. They don’t want thousands of people coming in and taking their jobs. They don’t want guys coming in all drugged up, driving drunk on their streets. Every — I mean, Hispanic Americans I think want the borders of their country protected as well as anyone else.
O’REILLY: I think most of them do, but it has to be sold that it isn’t just a persecution of Latinos. Now you — my solution, if you read my books or anything, is just to put the National Guard down there to back up the border patrol, stops it dead. And then you concentrate with this nuke stuff on the trucks because it would have to be trucked in.
Several newspapers around the country, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Baltimore Sun, and the Chicago Tribune, printed an article last week that touched on the minimum wage. The headline in one paper was “Making money on Bush victory.” The reference to the minimum wage was as follows:
“Energy stocks should do well because companies will face less resistance to the use of nuclear or coal power, [Alfred ] Goldman [chief market strategist with A.G. Edwards & Sons Inc.] says. Retailers should prosper, in part because any increase in the minimum wage probably will be smaller than it would have been if John Kerry had been elected president.”
The Hill newspaper, a publication largely for and about Congress, may have been unique in carrying on November 18th an article about reactions to Bush’s campaign proposal to “raise” the minimum wage by $1.10, and the chances that even that small adjustment will actually be made. The Hill quoted AFL-CIO Director of Legislation Bill Samuel to the effect that the AFL-CIO would protest any change smaller than the $1.85 correction proposed by Senator Edward Kennedy and supported by Senator Kerry.
Don’t expect a flood of coverage of this issue. Don’t expect lies about the effects of a decent minimum wage to be eliminated or corrected. Don’t expect “think tanks” funded by restaurants and hotels to be identified by their funding sources. And don’t expect the views of those working for the minimum wage to be included in media coverage. Public opinion, of course, favors fixing the minimum wage, but our public discourse