Contrary to right-wing talking points, the purpose of the minimum wage has always been to provide a decent livelihood.
30 January 2021
Clockwise: Joe Biden, incumbent President of the United States and stated proponent of a $15 federal minimum wage; Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who established the first federal minimum wage; supporters of the 'Fight for 15' movement.
On June 16, 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made a statement in celebration of the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). The historic legislation sanctioned many of Roosevelt's most ambitious proposals to tackle the Great Depression, including the creation of the Public Works Administration (PWA). NIRA, which would be rendered defunct by judicial mandate just two years later, is perhaps best noted for being the first federal minimum wage scheme.
Through the legislation, the newly-created National Recovery Administration (NRA) was given the mandate to establish minimum wage rates through cooperation with private firms. Five years later, Roosevelt would sign the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, thereby creating the first standardized federal minimum wage. Roosevelt did not mince words when speaking about why he supported minimum wage laws. In Roosevelt's own words, "[i]t seems to me to be equally plain that no business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country." Roosevelt additionally clarified that "...by living wages[,] I mean more than a bare subsistence level– I mean the wages of decent living."
Roosevelt's reason for supporting and presiding over the creation of a federal minimum wage was clear: The minimum wage was intended to allow all workers to achieve a decent standard of living. Roosevelt added, in equally explicit terms, the goal of the federal minimum wage as created by NIRA was to transform workers' "starvation wages and starvation employment [in]to living wages and sustained employment". The demand for minimum wage laws to improve workers' livelihoods had become common throughout much of the international labor movement decades prior to the passage of NIRA. These campaigns shared a common goal: Rectifying the fact that far too many workers were being paid too little to lead a decent livelihood.
The first modern minimum wage law was enacted in New Zealand as part of the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act of 1894, passed primarily to curb further labor agitation in response to the 1890 maritime strike. The legislation created an arbitration court to set minimum wages in various industries to guarantee decent standards of living for workers in said sectors. As economist M.B. Hammond noted in The Regulation of Wages in New Zealand (1917), through the legislation, "it would be the duty of the Court to see that the minimum wage established by the Court was high enough to enable the worker to maintain a decent standard of living."
The passage of the legislation was followed across the Ditch two years later in Australia, with the colony of Victoria implementing the Victorian Factories and Shops Act in 1896. The legislation created wages boards especially to tackle rampant poverty among "sweated workers", whose measly wages prevented them from leading decent standards of living. This monumental victory had reverberations across the world, inspiring similar efforts in the United States and Europe. In 1909, the Parliament of the United Kingdom passed the Trade Boards Act, intended to guarantee workers in industries notorious for low wages a living wage. Speaking in favor of the act, Winston Churchill MP, then a young Liberal, stated that "[i]t is a serious national evil that any class of His Majesty's subjects should receive less than a living wage in return for their utmost exertions."
In the United States, groups like the National Consumers League (NCL) led the push for state-level minimum wage legislation during the 1910s. Early minimum wage campaigns were intrinsically linked with the women's rights movement, with feminist leaders identifying minimum wage laws as a means to curb poverty among working women, who invariably received lower wages than their male counterparts. Notable advocates of minimum wage laws in this period include future Social Security Board member Molly Dewson and iconic social reformer Florence Kelley, the latter of whom played a major role in Massachusetts's early adoption of the minimum wage.
Speaking on the need for minimum wage laws, the NCL stated that "the interests of the community demand that all workers shall receive fair living wages, and that goods shall be produced under sanitary conditions". By 1923, Massachusetts had been joined by fourteen other states as well as the District of Columbia in passing minimum wage laws. These state-level laws, along with other progressive labor legislation, would find itself a target of the judicial activism of the Lochner-era Supreme Court.
There is no ambiguity surrounding the reasoning behind the Roosevelt Administration and earlier advocates' support for minimum wage laws. The purpose of minimum wage legislation was to guarantee that workers, be it from select industries or across-the-board, would be paid well enough to afford a decent livelihood. Given that the federal minimum wage was created to be a living wage, one would expect that any suggestion to the contrary would be met with universal derision. Unfortunately, the false claim that the minimum wage was never intended to be a living wage remains a popular conservative talking point.
The prevalence of this talking point is especially bizarre given that it does not even make sense at face value. What, exactly would be the purpose of laws mandating a minimum if not to prevent employers from paying their workers too little to live on? Despite the absurdity of this claim, PragerU, a hard-right propaganda front originally propped up by petroleum tycoons, had the gall to say say that a "minimum wage, by definition, is not supposed to be a living wage". In a thinly-veiled dig at food service workers, "[h]uman beings are designed to learn, to grow, and to become capable adults. Entry-level jobs help provide that initial opportunity."
It's tempting to respond to this claim by noting that minimum wage jobs are anything but the exclusive domain of teenagers. International conglomerates like McDonalds do not hire cashiers and kitchen workers as some kind of charity measure to allow young people to gain experience to "become capable adults". Fast food giants hire these workers because their businesses would necessarily not be able to survive without their labor, an extremely basic concept that conservatives who claim economic expertise have somehow not been able to figure out.
But doing so, even if necessary, feels wrong, because PragerU and similar mouthpieces are not arguing in good faith. This is not an instance of misunderstanding the history of minimum wage campaigns, but a deliberate lie to antagonize and devalue food workers. Providing proof that minimum wage jobs are not the exclusive domain of high school students is futile because conservatives do not care about the welfare of older workers, either.
When conservatives dismiss the necessity of providing food service workers with a living wage, they are not doing so because they feel the jobs they perform are obsolete. After all, anyone who regularly purchases prepared food is aware of the need for workers to cook and serve meals. On the contrary, they fully understand the necessity of these jobs, they're just more than willing to let those who perform them suffer in poverty.
Despite Americans' famous disregard for the welfare of "burger flippers"—this hateful moniker persists, even after the "essential worker" label became ubiquitous during the COVID-19 pandemic—it's clear that President Joe Biden's $15 federal minimum wage initiative has a popular mandate. When Seattle instituted a $15 minimum wage in 2014, the policy was denounced as radical, a self-inflicted wound that would surely sabotage the city's rapid growth. The tireless effort of organized labor, progressive politicians, and the clear success of the policy where it has been implemented has led to the policy being embraced by both the Democratic Party and the public at-large.
Though the leftist critique that a $15 minimum wage was insufficient as a means to eradicate poverty among workers in 2014 and is even less effective seven years later has merit, perspective is needed here. More than doubling the federal minimum wage will surely transform countless lives for the better, and it's entirely consistent to recognize this while also supporting campaigns for future increases to the minimum wage. Raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour will not single-handedly fulfill the initial goal of minimum wage laws—ensuring that all workers will be paid enough money to live on—but if implemented will be a huge step towards it.
Aidan Smith (@Aidan_Smx) is the founder and political director of Labyrinth. He has contributed to an array of publications, including The Nation, The Appeal, Current Affairs, and Salon.
Artwork by Aidan Smith. Design by Tia Wagh. (@Tia_Wagh)