Episode 76: Poverty Values

In the seventy-sixth episode of The Latest, we debate whether a free weekly podcast is worth $7.25 or $15. Susie Penn, who just received her second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, joins the program for this week’s O.J. Simpson Twitter Update.

The Latest with Greg Ott
The Latest with Greg Ott
Episode 76: Poverty Values


Those voices are discussing the minimum wage, the least amount of money you’re legally allowed to pay a person to safely microwave the breast of a dead chicken that you’ll be putting inside your body. 

As legislators battle over the inclusion of a federal $15 minimum hourly wage increase as part of a COVID-19 economic relief package, many across the country are asking themselves the same question: will this help my sandwich artist get their own exhibition? 

Since 2012, activists have been engaged in an ongoing movement known as the “Fight for 15,” a slightly more populist call-to-action than the campaign of the same name pursued by R. Kelly.

Unchanged since 2009, laborers at companies like McDonald’s Restaurant currently earn $7.25 an hour — which is enough to comfortably purchase a medium double quarter pounder meal with nine cents to spare, and that’s before factoring in the generous 30% employee discount that encourages the obvious splurge on the luxurious apple pie in the spacious cardboard box.

While many cities and states have since set their own minimum wage laws, like the $15-an-hour rate in New York City that covers one cool 200th of its average monthly rent, the federal minimum wage has remained the same for over a decade, a stagnancy only eclipsed by that of your screenplay.

Back in the late 1800s, as I’m sure you remember labor leaders in the US pushed for the first minimum wage as a means of providing workers with enough money to live off of — they needed to be able to afford everyday necessities like chloroform-laced toothpaste, heroin-laced cough medicine, and cocaine-laced cigarettes to treat their asthma. 

But ever since the federal minimum wage was established in 1938, it’s never been automatically tied to rising living costs and always requires a manual adjustment, like your board shorts after getting out of the ocean.

In the years since, it’s been raised a total of 22 separate times, and hasn’t changed since 2009, remaining stuck in the same time capsule as Jon Gosselin: broke, unsightly, and largely irrelevant after the passage of more than a dozen years. 

But in spite of the need to raise the cost of living, many business owners and government officials are putting in overtime hours to prevent average workers from capitalizing on their own.

To combat the fight for 15, one new Vice report finds that McDonalds has been spying on laborers and organizers through its own secretive “strategic intelligence” unit, a department that must not have been assembled before they snuffed out the all-day breakfast.

And some politicians, such as 60-year-old Republican Senator John Thune, believe that there’s no need for a wage hike, because he, anecdotally, made $6 an hour when working as a restaurant as an adolescent — a rate, when adjusted to inflation, equal to $23 an hour. With rates like that, he wouldn’t even need to worry about line cooks spitting in his food because they’d be able to afford high-end mouthwash. 

As of press time, the proposed inclusion of a minimum wage increase in the American Rescue Plant remains in limbo thanks to the Senate Parlaimentarian, the so-called Senate Referee who hoists up a yellow card in the chambers of the world’s greatest deliberative body in case its members get too close to enacting a law that could improve the life of the citizens they represent.  

That’s not to say efforts to raise living standards have completely stalled out — Josh Hawley, the Senator hailing from Insurrection, Missouri, has put forward an alternative proposal to provide occasional tax credits to workers making less than $16.50 an hour through what he’s dubbed the “Blue Collar Bonus,” so long as that blue collar isn’t affixed to the uniform of a police officer being bludgeoned to death by a fire extinguisher carried by a member of a mob he supported.

And in spite of a federal raise, many large companies have already committed to providing a $15 minimum wage, such as Amazon, Target, and Best Buy, and Costco announced plans this week to boost theirs to $16, allowing Kirkland to dethrone Portland as one of the more progressive places in the country.

To me, raising the minimum wage isn’t just essential because it’s the right thing to do — it’s because living standards shouldn’t depend upon the Burger King’s royal generosity. 

Back when everyone pretended that the virus meant we need to be nice to each other, workers at places like grocery stories were offered additional “hero pay,” awarding an extra four or five bucks an hour for risking their personal health in order to assure panicked suburbanites that paper towel can serve as a toilet paper substitute as long as they don’t mind destroying their pipes like a Texas snowstorm. 

But in the months since, not only have many stores decided that these “essential” workers are no longer the types of heroes you applaud on an airplane and rescinded their bonus pay, chains like Kroger — who reported nearly $800 million in profit last quarter — have decided to close down stores entirely rather than cough up half the value of a checkout chicken. 

Many businesses pretend that raising the minimum wage will destroy their bottom line and force them to lay off employees or raise prices, transforming those pocket-lining $11 deep-fried gorgonzola-stuffed olive bites into $12 margin-shattering mass layoffs. 

And while I’m somewhat sympathetic to those that may have to rearrange the manner in which they conduct business, it’s hard to get worked up over concerns that companies might have to start shelling out enough cash to help an employee cover their share of the rent —when it’s literally the least they can do.