“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.”
– Sophie Tucker
Sophie Tucker had a tough life. Born to a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant family she began singing in her parents’ restaurant in Connecticut for tips. She appeared in The Ziegfeld Follies but her talent threatened some of her co-performers and they got her fired. She went on to overcome these obstacles and became successful and famous. And she earned the title, “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas.”
In 1927 when this recording of “Some of These Days” was made, there was no such thing as the minimum wage. It would be eleven years until Franklin Delano Roosevelt pushed that proposal through Congress and it became illegal for any employer to pay an employee less than the magnanimous amount of twenty-five cents per hour. A person working a full forty hour work week, fifty-two weeks a year could earn $512 per year. Even by 1938 standards those were wages that insured a life of poverty or at the very best meager subsistence.
In 1964, two years before Tucker’s death, the Congress passed ‘The Civil Rights Act which officially prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Fortunately, Tucker had found a career in the one industry which had, at least, marginally, followed those principles before they became the law of the land – entertainment. As prevalent and blatant as discrimination against blacks was in varying states and jurisdictions, Jews were frequently the subject of anti-Semitism – although it might have been more subtle than the hatred preached by the KKK and other groups.
This discrimination took the form of having “unofficial policies” in which Jews were regularly excluded from membership in private clubs and prevented them from living in certain areas which preferred an all-Gentile population, not unlike the redlining phenomenon that precluded blacks from home ownership in many communities. And as with black Americans, there were any number of pejorative words and phrases coined to describe and demean Jews – although our more sensitive citizens usually waited until the person being so described left the room and then whispered it to his listener “sotto voce.”
Sonya Kalish which was Sophie Tucker’s birth name had obstacles to overcome. So did everyone else in early 20th century America. There were no governmentally inspired “safety nets” to which a person could look should they get in financial difficulty. All that a person had was family, friends and their own drive, ability and ambition. Fortunately, Tucker had a desire to succeed – and she did – enough to make her a national icon and a person who was well off financially.
I doubt that at any time, Sophie Tucker aspired to do just enough to make it through and get by. She was someone who saw herself as a person whose aspirations were only as great as she believed them to be. And perhaps it was exactly because we had no safety nets that she was impelled to succeed. How much inspiration to do better do we have if we are given a minimal level which is assured if we do little or nothing?
Which brings us to the question of the minimum wage – an invitation to a life filled with need and poverty.
“If you’re against raising the minimum wage you’re a Tea Party Republican who hates people, wants them to starve, abhors the middle class and is only concerned about corporate profits.” Perhaps you’ve heard that meme. If not you don’t own a television or a computer which has access to current events. If you believe that statement, you need to enroll in a remedial class in basic math.
We’ve had a Federal minimum wage law on the books for seventy-six years. During that time, the percentage of Americans who are officially classified as living in poverty has increased as a percentage of the overall population. Why should this be if a guaranteed minimum wage is intended to combat this phenomenon effectively and has been raised periodically during that time span? Is there even the most ardent among those pushing for a forty percent increase who truly believes that should that be enacted it will lift those minimum wage earners out of their dire financial circumstances and suddenly move them into the middle class? If you accept the government’s definition of what a middle class person earns you will find that the math simply doesn’t work.
Well let’s turn to the issue of greedy corporations looking to maximize their profits, all on the backs of their underpaid workers. Most business owners would agree with the statement that the reason for going into business is to earn profits and to grow the business in order to increase the size of the profits. The real disagreement with those on the left who would agree with that statement is that they then add on the final clause, “without regard to the working conditions or financial well-being of their employees.” That statement can only be made by someone who is inexperienced in running their own business.
We all know that there are costs associated with hiring employees. Those that are obvious include various taxes which are imposed and include FICA, FUTA, state unemployment contributions, paying state worker’s compensation premiums and providing health insurance. Those are the legal, mandated additional costs that every employer incurs. But there are indirect, less obvious costs that also impact an employer’s profitability. One of the most important of those is productivity.
Most of us would agree that if two mechanics who were equally competent were available to repair our car and one charged twice the amount of the other, we would probably select the less expensive mechanic to do the job. If we had two employees on our payroll and one was able to produce fifty widgets an hour and the other consistently only made twenty-five in an hour, wouldn’t that second employee only have half the value of his co-worker to our company and wouldn’t he be contributing only fifty percent the amount to our profitability?
This leads us to a simple question. Is it fair to pay the more productive employee the same amount as his less efficient counterpart? Or, more to the argument of those who believe everyone should get a guaranteed wage, would it be unfair to the less productive employee to pay him less than our second, more productive worker – even if that lesser amount conformed to the then prevalent minimum wage?
I suspect those with a “fairness” mindset would object to rewarding our more valuable employee because somehow they view that as an employer “demeaning” the other worker by paying him less, irrespective of the fact that he actually is less valuable to the company. Unfortunately, the mantra, “Equal pay for equal work” disregards the fact that not all workers offer an equivalent amount of productivity for the time they spend in our offices or factories.
Those lobbying for an increased minimum wage believe that paying “less than a livable wage” is barbaric. I would suggest that probably is true – and the individual who is willing to accept that wage and live under those conditions is not exhibiting the best judgment or acting in his own best self-interest. Why then do people accept those sorts of positions?
The possible answers are that they are lazy and unwilling to work at a better paying, more demanding position; do not have the skills to qualify for a better paying position; or find that the particular minimum wage job satisfies their personal goals. What other answer can there be to that question? Despite the acrimonious debate over this subject, I have yet to hear that minimum wage-paying employers go out with shotguns, round up people and force them to work in their businesses, threatening them and their families with bodily harm if they fail to comply.
“Don’t let anybody tell you that it’s corporations and businesses that create jobs.” That statement from no one other than non-Nobel prize winning economist, Hillary Clinton. If we accept that statement, then it is government which is solely responsible for job creation – or lack of it. In part I would agree with that concept – particularly the latter part because while insightful regulation is a positive thing, overregulation is a burden and a job destroyer. If there is a dearth of jobs in this country and it is government who is the job creator, then obviously government is not doing very well in this regard. Or are they?
We now have more people than in the country’s existence on some form of Federal dole, ranging from food stamps to telephones. These are people whom the government has created and endowed with a job – to continue to vote for those who concocted these programs with promises that even better, more lucrative programs are in the works. And people who are naïve and uneducated solidly endorse their own enslavement in election day after election day. This Tuesday is unlikely to suggest that many of them have yet seen the light.
In 2008, half the country voted for “Hope and Change.” We’ve gotten more than our fair share of the second part of the slogan. I’m still optimistic that we will get a peek at the first part. At least, I hope so.