Erica Concepcion is fed up. She stands at the front of the room in the mezzanine of Northeastern University’s Curry Student Center, clutching a microphone and calling for a revolution. Calling for change. She is done working two jobs at minimum wage and trying to make ends meet and support her family. For her, the difference between struggle and comfort is six dollars.
“I barely eat,” Concepcion says. “It’s either, or. And I speak for every fast food worker when I say that we always have the complications of an ‘either, or’. Either we have to pay our bills, or we eat.”
Concepcion is an employee at Dunkin Donuts who has partnered with “Fight For 15,” a movement of local worker’s rights groups working to raise the minimum wage from $9 an hour to $15 here in Boston. On March 26, Northeastern hosted a “Fight for 15” panel discussion and rally with students and faculty which served as a precursor to an April 14th citywide rally in Kenmore and Forsyth Park.
The Northeastern rally was moderated by Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and featured local workers sharing their struggles of life in low-wage jobs.
Jaimee McGruder (COM ’17) says she’s experienced firsthand the battle of trying to live off of minimum wage while growing up in Arlington, Texas with a single mother. “I know what it’s like to live in poverty,” she says. “No one should have to choose between paying the bills and putting food on the table.”
Cara Toland (CAS ’17) agrees with McGruder. “I’m chronically ill and I have to work two jobs to pay for my medication,” she says. She had trouble trying to find an employer willing to pay her more than $9 an hour.
The people at the rally expressed that their long hours and tireless efforts are not being rewarded effectively. They feel, as Concepcion says, that they are worth more than their paychecks reflect. And the atmosphere at the rally was one of overwhelming and unyielding support in the fight to raise minimum wage. So why hasn’t anything been done?
The “Fight for 15” is, at its core, a fight against economic theory. On the one hand, raising the minimum wage would seem to be a dispassionate solution. If we pay workers more, they’ll earn more and have more time to spend that extra cash which is money flowing back into the economy. Simple enough. But traditional economic theory disagrees.
Jane Katz, an economist formerly with the Federal Reserve Bank in Boston, will be teaching a summer course at Harvard that focuses on understanding labor economics. She says the baseline economic viewpoint is generally pretty conservative.
“Traditional economic theory would suggest, if you raise the wage above what economists call the equilibrium, what exists determined by the market, you reduce the demand for labor,” Katz says. “Then firms that now have to pay more will decide to hire fewer workers. So you would expect to see a decline in either hours or reduced number of workers.”
No surprise, that’s the view many restaurants take. Scott DeFife, the executive vice president of public policy for the National Restaurant Association, told NPR that in places where the minimum wage is raised substantially, hiring would be greatly reduced.
“If there is too much pressure on wages, there may be less of those jobs per establishment,” DeFife said. “And in certain areas of the country, you could see stagnating growth in the industry.”
So in fact, some worry that raising the minimum wage could do more harm than good for low wage workers.
The Problem with the Theory
However, Katz points out the complexities involved in meshing economic theory with the human condition. Mainly, she says the research hasn’t come up with any huge, game-changing, definitive results in either direction.
David Neumark from the Department of Economics at UC Irvine and William Wascher of the Federal Reserve Board said they’ve done just that. They published a paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research stating definitively that “among the papers we view as providing the most credible evidence, almost all point to negative employment effects, both for the United States as well as for many other countries.”
Another concern with these studies, says Katz, is that there is no real way for them to be completely objective. She says even she struggles with not letting her predispositions influence her analysis of the evidence.
With these biases in mind, Katz stresses the need to diversify the field of economics. “It matters what problems get studied and what people think, and it matters who’s in the profession,” Katz says. She says that the first step in creating a more complete and accurate economic picture is to hire women and minorities who approach the studies with different personal experiences.
But that’s not to say social science research is unreliable. However, “every study has an Achilles heel,” meaning there’s something that isn’t included or there’s something “that you just can’t get data on,” Katz says.
So what economists have been doing to try to make sense of the varied findings and limited resources is a technique called “meta-analysis” or studies of the studies. By analyzing the results of multiple studies at a time, economists have more data to work with which makes it easier to see trends and get a bigger picture.
But meta-analysis is just the first step in untangling the angry knot of controversy that is the minimum wage debate.
So What Do We Do?
In light of the evidence, most economists are content to wait it out — to give the markets a chance to show a preference for raising or lowering the minimum. But people like Erica Concepcion say they can’t wait. They aren’t earning a livable wage so they are pressuring the government to make a decision.
Katz’s says her gut is to go ahead and raise it. She feels that a $6 increase “won’t make a huge difference, especially in a location like Massachusetts where cost of living is so high.” Maybe it might be a bigger deal in Mississippi she says, where the cost of living is less, but not here.
The bigger issue comes with people claiming that raising the minimum wage will fix income inequality. Katz insists that solving — or even improving — the issue of income inequality in the US in the long run is more complicated.
Raising the minimum wage is a start, Katz says, but more sustainable change comes with education, and an alteration in national values. And that battle for bigger change has been internalized by the “Fight for 15” movement and with people like Erica Concepcion.
“It’s not just about fast food workers anymore,” says Concepcion. “It’s about everybody. I’m fighting for you. Your battle, your struggle, is my struggle.”