Troy's Take: An Argument for a Minimum Wage Increase

Troy ClarksonAmy Rader Photographer - Troy Clarkson

The irony was not lost on me.

On the same day recently, as I surfed around the Internet for the day’s news, I came upon two stories that highlighted the challenge—and the starkness—of the economic inequity in our society today.

The first came all the way from Dallas, telling the sad and maddening tale of the preventable devastation wrought by 16-year-old Ethan Couch, a privileged teen who, after partying and making the fatal decision to get behind the wheel, killed four people and injured more after plowing into some good Samaritans who had stopped to help a disabled vehicle. In court, Mr. Couch’s attorneys, funded by his wealthy parents, asserted that he suffered from “affluenza,” an affliction brought on by his family’s immense wealth.

Their excuse for his murderous behavior included the notion that his life was so privileged and without struggle that basic values, morals, and a sense of right and wrong were unable to be instilled. This mindless contention was compounded by Judge Jean Boyd’s reckless concurrence with the attorneys, allowing Mr. Couch to kick back in an alcohol rehabilitation facility for a year, before enjoying the rest of his life as a free man, while the families of the deceased piece together their shattered lives. 

A modest increase in the wage, even a few dollars a week, brings our friends and neighbors a little closer to a livable wage.

The notion that Mr. Couch’s attorneys’ irresponsible and thoughtless theory would even get consideration in court demonstrates a troubling disconnect in our society, one where the super-wealthy can claim a disadvantage because of their wealth and actually be heard and considered. 

As I scratched my head hard enough to wince in pain pondering that issue, I then came across a much more reasoned and thoughtful debate, but one that equally highlights the financial disproportion in our economy—here in Falmouth and throughout the United States—and the varied philosophies on how to address it.

The thoughtful and detailed story by Elizabeth Saito discussed the proposed hike in the minimum wage, and the thoughts of our local business and political leaders on what it may mean. A bill recently passed by the Massachusetts Senate would have the minimum wage increased up to $11 per hour by 2016; a similar provision would increase the minimum for “tip earners” up to $5.50 by the same deadline. 

Concerns Being Raised

Some in our service-based economy have raised concerns. However, they have given a nod, rather than disdain, to our local service workers. Most prominent among them, local restaurant magnate Bill Zammer, who is a generous and kind benefactor to many local charities and nonprofits, has taken a pensive and not a pecuniary approach.

He noted in the article that increases in the base wages for waitstaff would “have to be balanced with price increases,” resulting in higher meal costs for our residents and visitors. Unlike the lawyers and judge in the tragic Texas case, who abrogated any responsibility or ownership of the issue, Bill is facing this issue head-on and framing a respectful debate on this important issue. He knows that his waitstaff, largely immigrants on work visas who help support their families at home with their earnings from his successful restaurants, need to earn a decent living to remain here and keep the Coonamessett and other local institutions thriving.

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Along with chamber chief Jay Zavala and State Representative David Vieira, Bill is organizing a “listening session,” where business people and citizens alike will provide feedback on the proposal, which will be taken up by the House of Representatives later this month. Bravo to Bill for recognizing the importance of getting this one right.

I think of it this way. A retail worker earning the current minimum wage of $8 and working a 40-hour week will take home somewhere around $250 per week after taxes. That’s barely enough to put groceries on the table, never mind a roof, clothing, gas, and other staples. A table server in a local restaurant stands to make a paltry $80 in base wages for the same period, although that pay is significantly boosted by tips. Either way, those amounts make it difficult, if not impossible, to survive. A modest increase in the wage, even a few dollars a week, brings our friends and neighbors a little closer to a livable wage—and an ability to continue to live in our community, which prides itself on economic and cultural diversity. 

When the board of health proposed banning smoking in our restaurants, many in town, including me, warned of certain economic Armageddon. We were wrong. It’s great to see that our local business leaders, led by Bill, are taking a much more reasonable and responsible approach to this critical issue.

Would I be willing to pay a little more, likely pennies on each meal, to help provide our hard-working Falmouthites, who are the backbone of our local economy, a step closer to economic security? I sure would. Against the backdrop of the economic thuggery of people like Ethan Couch, it’s even more apparent to me that it’s actually an economic—and societal—imperative.

Mr. Clarkson may be contacted at votetroy99@aol.com and followed on Twitter @TroyClarkson59.

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