retail news in context, analysis with attitude

Continuing our discussion of wage disparity, one MNB user wrote:

In the late 70’s and early 80’s, I had been working at my Uncle’s restaurant and making not much more than minimum wage, including my tips (a poor, shortsighted decision). In the early 80’s, I started in retail as a 22 year old who hadn’t done much preparation for a career and more or less fell into a job as an apprentice meat cutter with one of the chains. Although grateful for the opportunity, I soon found that as a journeyman meat cutter I might initially make more money than many of my friends who were just graduating from college, my options would be limited and the career channel narrowed. In addition, my pay would soon top out while my friends’ earning power would continue to grow. I would also work weekends, holidays and various less-than ideal shifts over the next 20 years, all while being treated as an expendable commodity. Combined with my wife’s income as a medical assistant, we struggled as we raised 7 children on that meat manager salary (again, my choice).

I’d always kicked myself for not having furthered my education but had felt trapped by my circumstances. In the end, I discovered that it was only my limited perspective that kept me “trapped”, that this was my life to live and that if I didn’t like my circumstances, it was up to me to change them. So, at the age of 41, I quit the business, acquired my real estate license to allow for more flexibility, and earned a 4-year degree in the next 18 months. Suddenly, the world was wide-open with a myriad of opportunities at my feet. To make a long story short, I’ve spent the last 11 years as a regional rep for a branded beef company which has provided me with not only financial blessings, but the opportunity to continue to learn, grow and share from my now 40 years in the food/meat industry.

I don’t believe the minimum wage was ever intended to be enough to support a family on. I do believe it’s purpose is to allow for teenagers, college or tech students and secondary income earners to learn how to work, to acquire some job skills and additional knowledge which will allow them to take the next step. My poor, shortsighted planning put me in a position where my work choices were limited. In the end, the opportunity to change that dynamic was in my hands. The same applies to my wife who could have chosen to earn her nursing degree vs. earning the much lower income of a medical assistant. I fully understand that there are those who because of no fault of their own (disability, etc.) may not be able to ever overcome their circumstances. Those individuals are the ones that the public assistance safety net should be helping. Those who have chosen not to plan, work and climb any higher than they are today have that right. They DON”T have the right to command a higher wage than what the free market will pay. Jobs pay what individuals are willing to work for. To artificially inflate that wage is a slippery slope and in the end will do nothing to help those individuals overcome their circumstances, as prices will rise to compensate for those additional labor costs. Personal responsibility coupled with a compassionate public assistance program for those who CAN’T do for themselves seems to me to be the answer.

I would never presume to quibble with your life view. After all, it is your life that created it.

I'm not sure it is true that the minimum wage was created just for teenagers and secondary earners. Rather, it always has been my impression that it was created by FDR as a way of preventing workers from being exploited.

I do find it interesting that some people think that working in retail is a circumstance that people ought to be able to rise above, while at the same time there is a suggestion in many quarters that the one thing that would help many retailers survive is to have better, more engaged employees to improve the customer experience. I'm not sure those two views go hand-in-hand.

From another reader:

I find it odd that there remain people who think a company can't know about the personal situations of its employees in this day and age.

But, assuming they do not have electronic ways to do it, here's an old-fashioned way.

Employee wage + Number in Household + Working partner (yes-no) + poverty level = Pretty Good Guess.

When I started out as a cub reporter in 1972 that was how we had to do things and if memory serves, we came pretty close with our pre-internet techniques.

And another:

Just thought I’d chime in on the Walmart conversation regarding public assistance. One of your readers said the study was based on one store in Wisconsin. What constitutes public assistance? I only ask because Wisconsin is a state that offers part time unemployment. Meaning, if you lose your FT job, obtain  a part time job as a replacement, you still qualify for reduced unemployment to cover the other 20 hours per week.

This happens often with workers at Walmart in WI. They’ve lost lots of manufacturing jobs and these people end up working at Walmart less than full time. The state’s UI program kicks in to offer them assistance. This study is unfair in that it takes a particular state unemployment law and applies to Walmarts entire US workforce. Other states do not offer part time unemployment.

I learn something every day.

BTW…on the subject of wage disparity, I'd like to offer this story, which appeared yesterday on Marketplace, from National Public Radio:

"Wealth is the value of everything you own: stocks, bonds, your home, your car -- minus your debts. And while income inequality has taken center stage in debates about the growing gap between rich and poor, what's happening with wealth paints an even more staggering picture.

"The wealth share of the 0.01 percent, or the top 16,000 families in America, has skyrocketed. That tiny group now owns 12 percent of the wealth in America.

"The wealth of the larger one percent  -- and even the .5 percent -- isn't rising.

"These days, if you want to be among the biggest winners, says UC Berkeley researcher Gabriel Zucman, who co-wrote a new report on wealth, it helps to be in the 0.1 percent or better.

"Around 50 percent of the US population, Zucman said, has zero net wealth. Their debts, effectively, equal their assets."


I'm not sure what the solution is. The top earners in this country should not be demonized (unless they do something illegal or immoral to accumulate that wealth). And I'm pretty damned sure that raising the minimum wage to $10 or $15 won't solve the broader problem.

But I do think that if you have this kind of disparity, with trend lines suggesting that the chasm is getting wider, not smaller, then there is a socio-economic and cultural issue that needs to be addressed.
KC's View: