The road to hell: Minimum wage reform stillborn

by Brian Clarey

$6.15 an hour is not a lot of money.

Assuming a 40-hour work week, a man making $6.15 an hour, the minimum wage in North Carolina, makes less than $250 for his labors, just under $13,000 a year. For $13,000, one can buy a decent used car, procure about a pound of gold at current market prices or, like one woman in Indianapolis, purchase four tickets to see Hannah Montana at the Conseco Fieldhouse.

But a man who makes $6.15 an hour is denied much of the pleasures and spoils of this world, unless he steals them. And a single mother who makes the state’s minimum wage cannot hope to make enough to cover the cost of day care – it’s cheaper for her to stay on the dole.

I am of the opinion that $6.15 an hour is an inhumane wage, that one who makes it cannot possibly afford even basic necessities like a place to live, proper food to eat, a working car and gas to fill it, warm clothes for when the weather gets cold – things I believe a person working 40 hours a week should reasonably expect to be able to pay for.

Furthermore, I think a raise in the minimum wage is good, a strengthening of the economic foundation that has the effect of raising the bottom of our working society.

It’s worth a shot, I figure.

I mean, we know that “trickle-down” economics – the theory that lowering taxes on our highest earners will stimulate the economy – doesn’t work, though for some reason we keep trying it anyway.

Raising the minimum wage is the opposite of trickle-down theory, which stipulates that when the top tiers have extra cash they use it for investment, which stimulates the economy. This is arguable.

But the extra bucks kicked out to the working class will undoubtedly be invested, almost immediately, in the American economy in the form of groceries, gasoline, diapers, rent and, what the hell, maybe a couple 40-ounce beers.

Very little of it, I suspect, will make its way into tax-free offshore accounts.

And when the Greensboro Minimum Wage Committee began its campaign last year to raise the minimum wage in the Gate City to $9.36 an hour with all the fire and brio of a movement, I was excited.

I had some issues with the model – the $9.36 figure was particularly troubling to me, as it was adopted as the minimum in San Francisco, where the cost of living is a sight higher than in Greensboro. I think we can get away with less.

But I was both intrigued and impressed with the group and its mission, so much so that I green-lighted a series on the impending minimum wage debate as it related to businesses and individuals. And as we tracked the mission’s progress and the signatures continued to amass, I found myself thinking, Hot damn! This thing’s going to get on the ballot.

But I resolved to believe it when I saw it.

NC General Stature 163-218 allows our citizens the right to petition for any election or referendum. In Greensboro, if enough signatures are collected – equaling not less than 25 percent of the turnout in the last municipal election – the issue goes before City Council. If they choose not to ratify it, it goes on the ballot in the next election.

When it filed with the city last December, the committee aspired to gain 10,000 signatures, well more than the 4,000 or so needed to qualify based on voter turnout in the 2005 election. And they went about getting signatures at a rapid pace, suffering a brief hiccup, one campaign worker told me, during the recall election of Dianne Bellamy-Small. It made the rounds at gatherings both political and social in nature; in the east, where my children go to school, it was discussed after PTA meetings and school functions; it garnered the support of many churches in town and acquired the signatures of entire congregations. The movement was picking up steam.

Holy crap! I’m thinking. This thing is actually going to see the light of day.

By late summer they had collected thousands of names, and at the end of November it was announced on the committee’s blog that they had reached the watermark of about 5,000 signatures and were ready to proceed to the city council. They registered the petition on Dec. 1.

And that looks to be the end of it.

What the Greensboro Minimum Wage Committee either neglected to take into account or unwisely dismissed was that there was another municipal election in November 2007, a fairly well-attended one as it turned out, which, according to the language of the city code, brought the magic number up to about 8,500 – that’s 8,500 people who feel, as I do, that people who work full time should not live in poverty.

There’s another matter: The whole thing may go against the North Carolina Constitution, which states, “The General Assembly shall not enact any local, private, or special act or resolution… regulating labor, trade, mining, or manufacturing.”

Again, arguable – Jim Boyett, the committee’s co-chair and an attorney, asserts that a “lack of clarity” as to the city’s role in local initiatives empowers the city council with authority to make this decision. But this is an argument that should have been waged a year ago.

And, dammit, that petition should have been filed before the 2007 elections.

This is how a progressive movement dies: bad timing, shoddy research, lack of focus, poor judgment. A friend calls it “the ineptitude of the left,” the same old story of well-intentioned pavement on the road to hell.

I don’t know what to call it.

But I know this: There were 17,265 households that took in less that $15,000 in 2006. Fourteen percent of our families lived below the poverty level. And $6.15 an hour is just not going to cut it.

For questions or comments email Brian Clarey at