Low wages, low morals: why San Diego should raise the minimum wage

By Tobi Nickel

The political debate about San Diego’s minimum wage hike is oftentimes framed in exclusively economic terms. What are the economic consequences of raising the local minimum wage? Will it create or destroy jobs? Will it cause inflation? Will it create a hostile business climate, incentivizing firms to move outside city limits? Will it shut down small businesses? Will it hamper or promote economic growth?

Opponents of raising the minimum wage catastrophize that this measure is a “job killer” that will put thousands of San Diegans out of work. They warn that it will raise prices for everyday goods and products, passing on the hidden cost of raising the minimum wage to all consumers. They argue that businesses will flee San Diego’s hostile business climate and relocate to Texas.
Is there enough evidence to support these economic horror scenarios? Many economic arguments, statistics and studies are cited in the news, but there appears to be little consensus among economists regarding this highly controversial issue. Instead, it all seems to depend on what side one listens to. Both conservatives and liberals claim to have a monopoly on the truth, which should make us skeptical.

All this economic speculation misses the point that raising the minimum wage is about more than just growing the economy – it is about fairness and human dignity. Although the Earned Sick Leave–Minimum Wage Ordinance is an economic policy in nature, it goes far beyond economics and addresses critical ethical issues that plague American society today.

Increasing economic inequality, the erosion of the middle class and the unfair distribution of wealth undermine the moral integrity of our nation, threatening to turn this country from a democracy into an oligarchy. Though raising the local minimum wage by a few dollars will not solve these problems, it is a small and necessary step in the right direction.

The minimum wage hike is part of a larger debate that our nation needs to have. We need to ask ourselves tough questions about what kind of society we would like to live in. Do we want to revert to social Darwinism and survival of the fittest or do we want to treat our neighbors and fellow citizens with dignity and respect? Will we adopt measures to address the rising economic inequality and social injustices? Or, will we ignore the drifting apart of our society?

Raising the minimum wage is about sending a message to the establishment, to Congress and to corporate America that the public does not tolerate exploitation. Nobody who works hard at a full-time job should bring home paychecks that do not cover the basic costs of living. To employ someone full-time and not pay him a living wage is inhumane, unethical and a violation of human dignity.

Corporations should not have the legal permission to take advantage of the desperate situation of the American working class. Especially in the United States, where labor unions are comparatively weak, workers have little collective bargaining power. Inequality, fierce competition and the desperate need for a job forces many Americans to “voluntarily” accept low-paying jobs. There is always someone willing to do the job for even less money, lowering the wages for everyone and making everyone worse off. To prevent this socio-economic downward spiral, it is necessary that government steps in, draws a bottom line and protects the American working class from being taken advantage off.

Due to political polarization and gridlock in Washington, D.C., we cannot expect Congress to raise the federal minimum wage, currently set at $7.25, anytime soon. Fortunately, many states, cities and counties have taken this issue into their own hands, raising their regional and local minimum wage. For example, Seattle recently voted to incrementally raise the local minimum wage to $15 an hour. California decided to boost the statewide minimum wage from $8 to $10 an hour by January 2016. In fact, across the nation, there is a growing list of currently 23 states raising the minimum wage above the federal level.

I am happy and proud to see that San Diego has joined this progressive movement in raising the local minimum wage. We all know how expensive it is to live in San Diego. The current statewide minimum wage of $9 per hour just does not allow people to cover the basic cost of living here. Therefore, passing San Diego’s Earned Sick Leave–Minimum Wage Ordinance is the right thing to do. It will keep full-time working San Diegans out of poverty and will help them achieve a decent, more dignified livelihood.

Even if we assume that this ordinance would lower profit margins by a few percentage points for some businesses and would increase the price of the cheeseburger or burrito that you got for lunch by a dime or a quarter, raising the minimum wage is still the right thing to do. The price of a cheeseburger should not be kept artificially low, because the fast food industry denies its employees a living wage. The high standard of living of some should not be built on the backs of low-wage workers.

We have to stop framing the minimum wage debate in solely narrow economic terms. There is an important ethical dimension to this issue that is too frequently being ignored. Raising the minimum wage is about showing solidarity with the hard-working poor, letting them know that their needs have not been forgotten in this time of economic crisis and that we stand up for their right to a living wage.