When I was a child, my father broke his back on the job. Because of his injury my mom had to reenter the workforce, and her relative lack of skills meant that she had very few options. The best of those options was working the morning shift at a McDonald's and delivering newspapers in the afternoon. Both jobs paid the minimum wage. In 1987, that meant my mom earned $3.35 an hour ($6.87 in today's dollars) for the right for her hair to constantly smell like Egg McMuffins and her fingers to have permanent black ink stains from the newspapers she delivered.
Two minimum-wage jobs weren't enough to support our family, and we lost our home to foreclosure. We eventually moved into a tent in the mountains outside of Seattle. For my family, the minimum wage did not purchase even a minimal amount of dignity and economic security.
Despite this experience, I hadn't bought into the fight for a higher minimum wage, and I even wrote articles opposing minimum-wage increases. My opposition was rooted in the belief that my mom's struggle helped motivate her to get an associate's degree, and a belief that a higher minimum wage will only accelerate the trend toward automating low-skill jobs.
(One response to those articles, among many, was that my mom should have died before she had me, rather than four years ago. Of course, that tweet was worded far more colorfully than what I just described--which just shows that neither side of our polarized society has a lock on being civil or decent.)
However, my perspective has changed since writing those articles. To begin with, I have paid my own employees significantly above the minimum wage. Granted, those positions are high-skilled, but still, higher pay attracts better employees, which in turn increases company performance. That said, the choices I make as an employer have little bearing on an argument for a higher federally mandated minimum wage.
My own company's experience hasn't been the driving factor in my change of position on the minimum wage. What has changed my mind is that despite a booming stock market, the economy most Americans experience is deeply dysfunctional and deeply broken.
That dysfunction and brokenness is most starkly illustrated by a recent study from the United Way that found that 43% of Americans (51 million households) cannot afford the basics of a middle-class existence, which, according to the report, include food, transportation, rent, healthcare, and a cell phone.
For the record, anyone who considers a cell phone a luxury should try to get a job without one.
My reversal on the minimum wage isn't because I think it is a perfect policy to alleviate poverty, or that it won't impact small businesses. I have a small business and understand a $15 minimum wage would likely create pressure on me to raise pay.
Instead, my reversal on the minimum wage comes from a belief that an economy operating in a way that prevents nearly half of the population from affording the essentials of a decent and dignified life is not sustainable. Put differently, the free market has been good to me and to many of the entrepreneurs I know and respect.
However, a free market that works for just half the population won't last. If proactive steps aren't taken to ensure people can afford the basics, the economy that works so well for some people now will disappear.
The minimum wage was one of a package of New Deal policies that were passed, in part, to preserve capitalism, not destroy it. The United Way research shows that we may be on the doorstep of a similar moment in history.
And that's why my perspective on the minimum wage has changed.
(Cue the angry Tweets and emails.)