Framing the Minimum Wage Debate in the 2016 Election

By Javin Dana '17

As the pre-election campaigns continue to gain momentum, discussions brought up by individual candidates have caused socio-economic classes, groups, and organizations across the U.S to react and rise to action. One such debate has centered on the issue of raising, lowering, or outright abolishing the minimum wage, and its potential effects on both lower-income groups and the economy at-large.

“Having a low minimum wage is not a bad thing for this country,” stated presidential hopeful and businessman Donald Trump in an interview with MSNBC on August 20. Trump believes that the current federal minimum wage is limiting the job market in the U.S. by stopping Americans from being “competitive.”

“We’re in a global economy now,” he noted. “It used to be people would leave New York state and companies would leave New York state or leave another state and go to Florida, go to Texas, go to wherever they go because the wages.”

Trump alleges that the potential work opportunities for United States citizens have been vastly limited because of the current global market. He claims that the minimum wage disincentivizes the employment of workers by larger, particularly industrial, corporations, as work is being offloaded to other countries with far cheaper labor prices.

“—Now they’re leaving the United States, and they’re going to other countries because they’re competing for low taxes and they’re competing for low wages and they’re competing for all sorts of things,” he continued. “We can’t have a situation where our labor is so much more expensive than other countries that we can no longer compete.”

Trump’s sentiments are mirrored to varying degrees by other Republican nominees. Jeb Bush and Rand Paul serve as just two examples in the dauntingly bulky array of GOP candidates presented this term who have contested the need for a federal minimum wage.

[The minimum wage is] a chance to get started,” stated Paul in an interview with Politico. “I see my son come home with his tips. And he’s got cash in his hand and he’s proud of himself. I don’t want him to stop there. But he’s working and he’s understanding the value of work. We shouldn’t disparage that.

Paul sees minimum wage work as a temporal step in process of attaining greater work opportunities. He notes that it can help individuals garner experience by assimilating lessons from early lower-income jobs. However, he does not recognize it as a useful means to survival for impoverished families, and in fact views it as a burden on the lower and middle classes.

The argument is as much philosophical and ideological as it is political. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Bush, much like Paul, denounced the federal minimum wage, stating, “This is one of those poll-driven deals. It polls well, I’m sure – I haven’t looked at the polling, but I’m sure on the surface without any conversation, without any digging into it people say, ‘Yea, everybody’s wages should be up.’ And in the case of Wal-Mart they have raised wages because of supply and demand and that’s good.”

He continues, “But the federal government doing this will make it harder and harder for the first rung of the ladder to be reached, particularly for young people, particularly for people that have less education.”

Essentially, the arguments arising from conservatives center around the potentially harmful limitations on the job market and younger employees brought about by a higher federal minimum wage.

The presidential candidates swinging left-of-center have taken a starkly different approach to the conservative opposition regarding the minimum wage and wealth inequality in the U.S.

Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, is no stranger to these debates. In 2015, alongside House Rep. Keith Ellison, Sanders introduced a $15 an hour national minimum wage bill in an attempt to shift what he call the current “starvation wage” towards a more feasible “living wage.”

Detroit rally attempts to push a 15 dollar federal minimum wage (Photo: Wikimedia Commons).

Detroit rally attempts to push a 15 dollar federal minimum wage (Photo: Wikimedia Commons).

Following the introduction of his bill to Senate, Sanders rallied among federal contract workers protesting their job conditions. In these rallies, activists and federal contractors alike discussed the poor handling of lower-income and minimum-wage workers, and the fundamental problems with holding low minimum wages: namely the inability for individuals, and more-so families, to survive off of them.

I’m here because America needs to know that long hours and low pay hurt working women and families,” said Sontia Bailey, a federally-contracted cashier at the U.S. capitol, in an interview with the Huffington Post. “A living wage and a union is the only way working women can get ahead, and stay ahead.”

Other prominent Democratic nominees also stand in agreement with Bailey’s position. Presidential candidate Martin O’Malley pledged full support for the $15 minimum wage bill, following Sen. Sanders’ example. Hillary Clinton addressed the members of a Detroit rally, similar to the one Sander’s took part in, by phone, explaining that although she does not necessarily support a broad-brush increase to the federal minimum wage, she does champion the idea of providing “living wages” to lower-income families.

“We need more cities and states to follow the lead of Los Angeles and St. Louis and New York,” Clinton told the minimum wage employees (most of whom presently work for fast-food corporations).

Clinton’s arguments centered on sustaining lower income families and bolstering the lower-to-middle classes through potential state-lead increases, and welfare benefits. Much like her fellow running mates, she views this as a step forward in stimulating the national economy by allowing lower-income spenders to control more of the national wealth. This belief is well regarded across the current spread of Democratic candidates.

The converse, as championed by Republican nominees, asserts that by creating strict regulations on the the minimum wage for laborers,  companies will lose most of their incentives to employ such workers, instead outsourcing their labor at a lower price. Based on this assertion, the minimum wage would then serve as a depressant on the economy, rather than a means of bolstering the lower class.

As of now, the bill is still under scrutiny from candidates and political representatives in both parties, and its Senate hearing will be held in the coming weeks, before the session begins.