Round and Round the Mulberry Bush: Keeping an Eye on the Weasels

by Harvey Asher, Ph.D. on February 3, 2014


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The latest economic data show workers’ wages and salaries growing at the lowest rate relative to corporate profits in U.S. history. Yet in “America’s Inequality Problem,” a January 20, 2014, column for The New York Times, David Brooks says, “. . . raising the minimum wage may not be an effective way to help those least well-off.” He cites a study by Professors Joseph Sabia and Richard Burkhauser that found no evidence that increases in the minimum wage had any effects on the poverty rate.

That may not be quite right. Also in January, USA Today mentioned an unspecified study that determined that just over 11% of those officially classified as poor and 42% of those occupying the next rung on the poverty scale would benefit if the minimum wage rose from the current $7.25 to $9.50. While not solving all problems related to poverty, raising the minimum wage would at least make many poor Americans less poor.

Brooks’s point is that “ . . . we should not be focusing on a secondary issue and a statistical byproduct.” Rather, emphasis should be on single motherhood and high school dropout rates, as they most correlate with lack of social mobility.

Right. Let’s focus on changing things that would take lots of time – assuming we even knew how to begin – and lots of money, difficult to come by in these times of large deficits. Let’s not do the simple thing we can do.

One good thing about running in circles: at least we look like we care.

It would be more honest to flat-out write off “the 47%” dependent upon government handouts, as did Governor Romney in his presidential run, than to maintain this pretense of being in their corner, all worried about their most pressing concerns, while sidelining the issue of gross income inequalities. We certainly don’t want “a class conscious style of politics” brought on by ever-widening income disparities.

And maybe if we keep on running in circles, that particular mulberry bush will just die of neglect?

In his article “More Imperfect Unions” (New York Times, January 26, 2014), Ross Douhat, unlike Brooks, offers a few words on the negative role Bain-like capitalism played in creating the current lopsided distribution of wealth. But he doesn’t mention raising the minimum wage as a tool for righting this situation. Like Brooks, he sees the undercutting of the two-parent family as the main cause of poverty, specifically, liberals’ “permissive attitudes towards sex and the 1970s era revolutions in divorce and abortion law.”

Hence, after a quick nod to the economics of poverty, Douhat shifts to a critique of liberal values that led the poor astray. Easy access to abortion allowed women the physical choice as to whether to go through with birth, he explains, and, therefore, “made marriage and child support the choice of the man.” No-fault divorce laws gave reasons to delay marriage and not to risk investing in a venture “that could be unilaterally dissolved.”

Douhat’s recommendations: wage subsidies to employers to hire underemployed workers, “modest” (unspecified) limits on unilateral divorce, and a second trimester ban on abortions. In other words, he winds up pitching the conservative family values agenda without so much as another glance at inequitable distribution of wealth.

Just keep running.

In actual fact, the reasons for the 50% divorce rates in this country transcend class. For one thing, many middle and upper class women earn enough so that they don’t have to stay in bad marriages. And it’s puzzling why Douhat thinks further restrictions on abortion would help the poor climb out of poverty. Wouldn’t it be more productive to advocate easy access to abortion? Better yet, more information, such as that provided by Planned Parenthood, to prevent unwanted pregnancies in the first place?

In any case, while awaiting the implementation of bold plans to resuscitate family values, why not raise the minimum wage? At the very least, such a step would not worsen the situation. Arguments that a higher minimum wage would lead to job cuts are not borne out by the results of previous hikes. In terms of purchasing power, the minimum wage reached its highest level in 1968, when, converted into today’s dollars, it equaled $10.55 an hour, more than is currently being proposed. Yet the unemployment rate in 1968 was 3.6%.

Raising the minimum wage is not a panacea for reducing poverty. But it would help many to be less impoverished, and that is a good thing. Instead, the weasels continue to race “round and round the mulberry bush” with variations on the blame-the-victim-and-blame-the-liberals theme that do not deal with the economics of poverty.

What sort of monkey would think “’twas all in fun”?

Harvey Asher

After receiving his doctorate from Indiana University, Harvey Asher taught a variety of courses in history and interdisciplinary studies for thirty-five years at Drury University, a liberal arts school in Springfield, Missouri. His articles on themes in Russian history, American history, and the Holocaust have appeared in the Russian Review, Kritika, the Journal of Genocide Research, the Russian Dictionary, the SHARF Newsletter, Federalism in America: An Encyclopedia, and Lessons and Legacies of the Holocaust. He is also the author of The Drury Story Continues, an informal but thorough history of the school.

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