July 4 2014
While being interviewed by Parade magazine, President and Mrs. Obama said that they would like for their daughters to have the experience of working at minimum wage jobs. Hear! Hear!
In his wise book, The Curmudgeon’s Guide for Getting Ahead, Charles Murray advises the gilded youth of today, more isolated from what Episcopalians used to call “all sorts and conditions of men” than their counterparts in previous generations, to seek out summer jobs that will introduce them to people they might not ordinarily get to know. Such jobs can be transformative. “Once you have been a server in a restaurant,” Murray writes, “you will never again look at dining in a restaurant as you did before you were a server.”
The target audience for Murray’s book is the kind of young person who has excellent educational credentials and is more likely to land a summer job in a think tank or on Capitol Hill or as personal assistant to a Hollywood mogul than at a McDonald’s—in other words, the Obama daughters a few years hence.
It must be noted that Sasha and Malia's Dad has a very limited view of people who work at jobs outside his own golden orbit. “Every little girl I meet out there,” President Obama told Parade, “I think about Malia and Sasha, and the notion that they’d be treated differently, trapped, not paid enough, having to settle for a raw deal on the job, having to scramble between taking care of kids, taking care of an aging parent, being single moms like my mom was and going to school and work at the same time, then having to come home and cook.”
If Malia and Sasha go into their minimum wage jobs with open hearts and minds, they can learn a great deal and maybe even help Dad get a better picture of life in these United States.
First, I hope Sasha and Malia will notice that most workers the Obama daughters meet are glad to have their jobs, which are becoming scarcer and scarcer thanks to Dad’s economic policies. Many of their colleagues will use the skills acquired at these jobs to move up the ladder to a better paying job.
These low-skilled workers may not deliver homilies on the dignity of work, but, if the Obama girls are observant, they will see that these jobs do confer dignity. Some of their colleagues could probably do just as well financially going on disability, but they know that dependence is a dead end, while work is a path to a better future, no matter how onerous and often tedious the job is on a daily basis. One of the refrains when welfare was being reformed in the 1990s, was this from disgruntled people who frankly preferred welfare to work: What do you expect me to do, work at McDonald’s?
Well, yeah—as did Amazon CEO and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos, who likes to brag that he learned to crack eggs with one hand while working at McDonald's, singer Macy Gray, who called the McDonald’s gig her “first big break,” according a CBS News report, and Jay Leno. Not everybody who works a minimum wage job at McDonald’s is going to scale the heights but all have the opportunity to move onto something that pays more, if they work hard, show up, and apply themselves. Oh, and if they don’t view themselves as “trapped, not paid enough, having to settle for a raw deal on the job,” as Sasha and Malia’s father described his take on the minimum wage job.
While raising the minimum wage is generally portrayed as a way to help low-skilled workers, Malia and Sasha, if they get real minimum wage jobs, might recognize that some of the people they meet would face unemployment if the minimum wage is hiked. It will be good that these people aren’t just statistics to Malia and Sasha but rather living and breathing people who were getting a toehold in the world of work and had the opportunity to come to work every day and build their skills.
Some of Sasha's and Malia's minimum wage coworkers, of course, would benefit from a minimum wage hike, but let’s hope that Malia and Sasha notice that these men and women are the employees who have honed their skills and thus were likely to move up anyway, and it’s those without skills who are the most likely to be harmed. That includes many of their contemporaries in age. Fewer and fewer young Americans have the opportunity to work. That’s a big set back for those teens, who will have a harder time getting a job without such critical skill-building opportunities.
That’s the real problem, especially since what creates poverty is not working full-time at a low-paying job, but not working at all. As my colleague Sabrina Schaeffer, executive director of the Independent Women’s Forum, recently has pointed out, researchers using twenty years of Census date found that among workers sixteen and older who are living in poverty, the problem isn’t the minimum wage—it was no wage. Only 9 percent of those living in poverty had full-time work year around, while 67 percent didn’t work at all. If Sasha and Malia talk to their coworkers, they’ll no doubt hear personal stories that, if the girls are open to new ideas, show them that a job—almost any job—is the best way out of poverty.
Life is unfair and, yes, some people do get stuck in minimum wage jobs. I know that Malia and Sasha will be able to see these people sympathetically and I hope they will view them not as unfortunates, but as people who are working heroically to support their families in tough situations. You can learn lots more than how to crack an egg with one hand if you mingle with your fellow Americans on the job. Who knows? Maybe the Obama girls will build a business one day and chalk it all up to the halcyon days at McDonald's.