Acton Institute Powerblog

Mike Rowe on the Minimum Wage: There’s No Such Thing as a ‘Bad Job’

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In the latest addition to Mike Rowe’s growing catalog of pointed Facebook responses, the former Dirty Jobs host tackles a question on the minimum wage, answering a man named “Darrell Paul,” who asks:

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 and hour. A lot of people think it should be raised to $10.10. Seattle now pays $15 an hour, and the The Freedom Socialist Party is demanding a $20 living wage for every working person. What do you think about the minimum wage? How much do you think a Big Mac will cost if McDonald’s had to pay all their employees $20 an hour?

Rowe begins by recounting a job he had working at a movie theater for $2.90 per hour (the minimum wage in 1979). He served his customers, learned a host of new skills, and received several promotions in due course. Eventually, he decided to move on, pursuing areas closer to his vocational aspirations.

He worked. He learned. He launched.

Turning back to the present (and future), Rowe is concerned about the ways various labor policies have prodded many business owners to innovate ever-closer to full-blown automation, leading to ever-fewer opportunities for unskilled workers. “My job as an usher [at the theater] was the first rung on a long ladder of work that lead me to where I am today,” Rowe writes. “But what if that rung wasn’t there?”

For some, however, there is little to be gained from such a lowly rung. As Rowe explains, he received significant backlash from an organization called Jobs With Justice for simply narrating a commercial for Walmart. Ignoring the tremendous value and opportunity that Walmart provides for many low-skilled workers (and in turn, the value and service those workers deliver to the rest of us), Jobs With Justice chose instead to label such positions as “bad jobs.”

Rowe’s counter is as follows (emphasis added):

While I’m sympathetic to employees who want to be paid fairly, I prefer to help on an individual basis. I’m also skeptical that a modest pay increase will make an unskilled worker less reliant upon an employer whom they affirmatively resent. I explained this to Jobs With Justice in an open letter, and invited anyone who felt mistreated to explore the many training opportunities and scholarships available through mikeroweWORKS. I further explained that I couldn’t join them in their fight against “bad jobs,” because frankly, I don’t believe there is such a thing. My exact words were, “Some jobs pay better, some jobs smell better, and some jobs have no business being treated like careers. But work is never the enemy, regardless of the wage. Because somewhere between the job and the paycheck, there’s still a thing called opportunity, and that’s what people need to pursue.”

People are always surprised to learn that many of the subjects on Dirty Jobs were millionaires — entrepreneurs who crawled through a river of crap, prospered, and created jobs for others along the way. Men and women who started with nothing and built a going concern out of the dirt. I was talking last week with my old friend Richard, who owns a small but prosperous construction company in California. Richard still hangs drywall and sheetrock with his aging crew because he can’t find enough young people who want to learn the construction trades. Today, he’ll pay $40 an hour for a reliable welder, but more often than not, he can’t find one. Whenever I talk to Richard, and consider the number of millennials within 50 square miles of his office stocking shelves or slinging hash for the minimum wage, I can only shake my head.

Indeed, at its very root, this is not about money or “fair compensation.” It’s about our fundamental perspective on work itself.

Obsessed with material output and superficial leveling, the wage-fixing wizards who disdain these arrangements wield significant damage on the economic imagination, obscuring the path to opportunity and long-term prosperity. Wealth creation is a hard and messy thing, not beholden to the loud barks and wand-waving of planning-class mobs. The more we stifle and stunt that process, pretending that opportunity comes from spreadsheets and materialistic theories about “fairness,” the harder it will be for all of us.

But although Rowe is correct to argue that we should instead pursue opportunity, we’d do well to remember that it’s not just about ensuring that Worker X can more easily navigate from here to there. Bound up in that process is the whole-life transformation that occurs through the work itself, something we ought not dilute or derail with artificial injections, manipulations, and distractions. Opening the doors for real opportunities driven by real signals that represent real human needs provides increased and sustained prosperity for all, and with the supporting work comes  dignity and a path toward service, stewardship, provision, generosity, and (if you’re so inclined) communion with God and neighbor.

When Rowe says “there’s no such thing as a bad job,” he doesn’t mean that work won’t sometimes be hard and difficult and toilsome and unfair. He means that through each season, work orients our hearts and hands in healthy, formative, sacrificial, and productive ways, and we best not trample over the crucial components that such a process provides. By tinkering with and bickering over the byproducts (the numbers, the paychecks, the contracts), we do nothing to improve the source. “Doesn’t matter how well-intended the policy,” Rowe concludes. “The true cost a $20 minimum wage has less to do with the price of a Big Mac, and more to do with a sound of thunder.”

As we put our hands to the plow and train up the next generation to do the same, let our attitudes and goals not be determined or driven by the price of a paycheck or Big Mac, but grounded in the service and sacrifice it represents. Less thunder. More flourishing.

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

Comments

  • Justin Norton-Kertson

    That wrung will still be there. It will just pay a wage that allows you to live without being in utter poverty. How horrible!