Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota, said Wednesday that he opposed raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, explaining that he earned just $6 an hour as a teenager working over summer vacations as a restaurant cook.
Mr. Thune has been rightly and roundly roasted for innumeracy. He was a teenager in the 1970s. Earning $6 an hour back then is equivalent to earning more than $20 an hour today, because inflation has reduced the purchasing power of each dollar.
On the merits, Mr. Thune ought to endorse a higher minimum wage.
Instead, Mr. Thune and his allies are preventing the Senate from passing a bill that would make employers give millions of Americans a long overdue raise. They keep telling stories like Mr. Thune’s to explain their opposition. It’s worth getting into the details a little, because Mr. Thune is drawing the wrong lessons from his own life.
Minimum wage laws exist to protect workers. In the economics textbooks, companies pay workers based on the value of their work. In the real world, power plays a role, too, and companies often have the power to suppress wages. Congress first mandated a minimum wage for some workers in the 1930s. Three decades later, shortly before Mr. Thune started at Star Family Restaurant in Murdo, S.D., that law was extended to include restaurant workers. In Mr. Thune’s first job, as a busboy, he was paid the legal minimum of $1 an hour.
Mr. Thune has said he worked at Star for seven summers, ending up as a cook earning $6 an hour. He used the money he saved to attend Biola College in California.
Unfortunately, the federal minimum wage has been in decline since Mr. Thune entered the work force. Congress is conscientious about tying some federal programs to inflation, but those adjustments tend to favor people with political power. Tax brackets rise with inflation so the rich don’t get soaked. Social Security benefits rise with inflation, too. But the minimum wage only increases when Congress votes to increase it.
It now stands at $7.25 an hour, worth roughly 40 percent less than in 1969. A full-time worker earning the minimum wage does not make enough to afford a typical one-bedroom apartment in almost any part of the country — let alone college at current prices.
House Democrats have proposed legislation that would raise the federal minimum wage incrementally, to reach $15 an hour in 2025. Opponents like to describe this as a journey into uncharted waters. They warn of particularly dire consequences for small businesses, especially in less expensive parts of the country like South Dakota. On Wednesday, Mr. Thune said that many employers are just scraping by, and that the law might cause them to go out of business.
But if the minimum wage had kept pace with inflation, it would now be about $12 an hour. If it had kept pace with productivity growth, the minimum would top $24 an hour.
And, as Mr. Thune knows well, the Star Family Restaurant in the late 1970s paid at least one junior cook the modern equivalent of $24 an hour.
It’s workers who are scraping by, and who could use a little more of the concern that Mr. Thune seems to feel for their employers. The average restaurant cook in South Dakota made just $13.33 an hour in 2019, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In other words, their wages are worth roughly half as much as young Mr. Thune’s wages in the 1970s.
Raise the minimum to $15, and cooks would still be a lot cheaper than they were back then.
Mr. Thune’s invocation of his own log-cabin story also trades on the widely shared misconception that minimum-wage jobs are a gateway to better pay. A kid starts clearing tables, works his way up to the kitchen, goes off to college, gets an M.B.A., and the next thing you know he’s representing the great state of South Dakota in Washington.
Low-wage work is often valorized as a way station rather than a way of life: teenagers flipping burgers, mothers returning to paid work, seniors earning extra money as Walmart greeters. But the truth is considerably bleaker than that. Most workers who earn less than $15 an hour are adults in their prime working years, between the ages of 25 and 54. And millions of Americans remain in low-wage jobs throughout their careers.
But the point here is not that politicians tell lies. The problem runs deeper than that. People actually struggle to understand evidence contradicting their established views.
Dan Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale, has found that people’s ability to solve math problems collapses when the right answer contradicts their political beliefs. In a 2013 study, for example, Mr. Kahan gave people data, sometimes describing it as being about the effectiveness of skin cream, and sometimes as being about the effectiveness of gun control. The ability to answer the same questions about the same numbers depended to a remarkable degree on respondents’ political views.
So how can proponents of a minimum wage convince Mr. Thune and others who share his worldview to accept evidence that contradicts their beliefs?
Perhaps it would help to put the argument in personal terms: Mr. Thune, during your seven summers working in a restaurant, the value of your wages far exceeded what young people in South Dakota can make doing the same kind of work today.
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