What Trump and Carson Don’t Get About Minimum Wage and Self Reliance

How confusing possibility with probability encourages policies that distort reality.

trump carson

Last Tuesday, fast food workers in Philadelphia and other U.S. cities participated in the largest rally yet behind the Fight for 15 — a national movement to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour. (On Thursday, a $15 minimum wage was one of the goals of The Million Student March.) President Obama has already called for a raise to $10.10, and both Democratic presidential frontrunners support a raise to at least $12. The movement is having a moment. We should all care about the outcome. But what may be just as interesting are the reasons some very influential people trot out when opposing it it.

Here’s the short case for raising the minimum wage: In every state, the $7.25 limit (which Pennsylvania usesfalls short of a living wage. A living wage is enough to cover basics like housing, food, clothing, education and transportation. That means the minimum wage employees supporting 60 million Americans couldn’t earn enough on the federal limit to meet basic needs.

Economic arguments against raising the wage include that it will require price increases at affected businesses, force job losses because some businesses won’t be able to afford as many employees, and actually hurt low-income people’s earnings because they will qualify for less federal assistance as their incomes increase. But I’m waiting for a clear case that these concerns can’t be answered by complementary policies to keep price increases down (like lowering franchising fees), boost job growth elsewhere and reconfigure welfare systems. (Note, too, that states that raised their minimum wage had more job growth last year.)

My hunch, though, is that the big reason people balk at raising the wage has little to do with economics. It comes down to a theme echoed by the two GOP presidential frontrunners when opposing a wage increase: the myth of American self-reliance and fairness. From poll leader Ben Carson, during Tuesday’s Republican debate that drew Fight for 15 protestors: People need to “ascend the ladder of opportunity.” From number two candidate Donald Trump: “People have to go out, they have to work really hard and they have to get into that upper stratum.”

Those statements come from two politicians who are resonating with significant numbers of Americans while pushing narratives of themselves as self-made men. Those statements, and those narratives, rest on the idea that America is, at its core,  a fair place where, if you suck it up and work hard enough, anyone can move up. (Just like America has been a place where, if you do what you’re supposed to, you can one day own a home. That’s not false at all.) You get the credit for what you have, and others get the blame for what they don’t.

Let’s examine this idea as it relates to fast food workers (4.4 million Americans as of 2012). Most are genuine breadwinners — older than 20 and supporting themselves and often families. As far as climbing up goes, past entry-level positions, the ladder loses rungs. Corporate structure is a pyramid: There are way more jobs at the entry level than there are moving up through management. The system hinges in part on the exclusivity of management jobs, meaning there can’t possibly be enough for everyone to “move up.” The next suggestion might be, get more education and “better yourself” for other opportunities. But even community colleges, considered the most available option, still face huge access issues.

In other words, basic economics and observational skills tell us that there always have been, and always will be, people who work hard but don’t move out of minimum wage jobs. Sticking with the social mobility model means saying that no matter how hard those people work, they don’t deserve basic necessities. This point applies even to those people who do use minimum wage jobs as stepping stones — in their early stages of moving toward the “upper stratum,” they’re working full-time only to continue to struggle.

Sure, it’s possible to “climb the ladder,” to do like Ben Carson did by moving from a childhood of poverty to a high-paying career — especially if you happen to have the specific intellectual gifts that make a top-tier neurosurgeon. But this possibility says nothing about the difficulties of doing so and whom they mostly affect. (It’s technically possible for a human being to jump a 47-inch vertical; most of us just can’t.) Confusing possibility with probability encourages policies that distort reality. I’m hoping the Fight for 15 momentum is not just a sign we’re closer to raising the wage, but also that we’re getting closer to overhauling some cultural assumptions that keep us stuck on this issue in the first place.

Follow @elenagooray on Twitter.