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the perils of paying it forward

Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

mcdonalds-wages-300x215An interesting story has been making the rounds at Reddit and FaceBook lately. You can get all the details here, but the gist is that a man was trying to pay his baggage fee at the airport and had his card declined, and before he could get to the counter to work out what was wrong, a stranger paid the fee for him.

It’s a touching story, especially in America these days. We’re so focused on individual freedoms and personal responsibility, sometimes it seems easy to forget that people still look out for each other and care about each other. But for me, it’s also oddly frustrating. Not the story itself but my reaction to it. I want to just have a lighthearted pleasure of one person helping another person out, but –while I definitely smiled at the helping-a-stranger-out bit– I can’t quite get past what the guy who paid for the baggage fee said. He wrote a note to the guy whose card was declined, saying “i heard them say your card was declined. I know how it feels. Your bag fee’s on me, just pay it forward the next time you get a chance.

Empathy is great. It binds us together, helps us put the other guy in our shoes, and prompts us to forge connections we wouldn’t normally see. And no question, this is a good thing. The problem is that empathy only goes so far. This guy who payed the luggage fee because he knew what it felt like to be in that situation. He has been embarrassed in situations where his credit card was declined, in a situation where he really needed it to work. this lets him crawl inside the other guy’s head, realize he would like somebody to help him, if their positions were reversed, and so make the uplifting leap of faith necessary to help another person. The problem is, empathy has its limits and we’re much more likely to empathize with people who look like you. Empathy means you’re more likely to help a fellow middle-class traveler whose credit card is declined. But it also may mean you’re less likely to sympathize with the panhandler you pass on your way to the subway because you can’t imagine how someone couldn’t have access to a decent job so someone that poor must be stupid or lazy or both.

Don’t get me wrong, helping people out is good. Seeing yourselves in other people is good, and wanting to help them out because now you see how that situation would impact you is good, too. But if this leads you to privilege certain people over others, that’s obviously a problem. A big one.

I’ve been thinking about this question in light of a recent ThinkChristian.net post by Jordan Ballor on whether we should raise the wages of low-wage workers. The post makes several points worth considering, but I think they can fairly be divided into two basic categories. First, he points out we need to look carefully at whether raising wages actually helps low-wage workers. The concern is that if you raise the minimum legal wage high enough companies won’t be able to meet it, and their workers will go from no-wage to low-wage. Intuitively it makes sense that if a company can make a profit paying a man to flip burgers for $6 an hour but not for $7 an hour, raising the minimum wage to $7 will probably mean those burger-flippers will find themselves out of a job.

I don’t think it’s quite that simple, The US Department of Labor cites several professional economists that are skeptical of this claim. Specifically, Harvard Prof. Richard Freeman wrote, “At the level of the minimum wage in the late 1980s, moderate legislated increases did not reduce employment and were, if anything associated with higher employment in some locales.” And according to Nobel laureate + MIT professor Robert Solow, “The main thing about (minimum wage) research is that the evidence of job loss is weak. And the fact that the evidence is weak suggests that the impact on jobs is small.” Now to be fair, several economists also disagree, claiming that raising wages will cost some jobs. The other case makes more sense to me, though, because in low wage jobs turnover costs are so high and because paying your workers more means more money gets spent buying services and products.

I’m no expert here, and Dr. Ballor is right on one thing: we need to carefully consider how raising the wage will affect actual workers, not just how it sits with our preconceived notion of economic justice. No question about that.

Dr. Ballor also talks about the idea that lower-wage workers are worth more than they earn. Not in an economic sense, necessarily, but in a basic dignity sense. Minimum wage jobs aren’t worked by high school kids saving up to buy a car, but increasingly by adults with families to support, and as the protesters note, those people are worth more than $7.25/hour. As he writes,

These sorts of slogans at labor-union events and protests capture a true insight. The human person created in God’s image is of inestimable value. But what the wages represent is not a commentary on the value of the human person as such. Rather, wages are a sign, a token really, of the value of our work to others. What we are paid is a representation of how serviceable, and therefore how salable, our work is. It’s a natural instinct to tie our self-worth to what we are remunerated in the marketplace. But this can be a misleading and potentially destructive identification.

When we aren’t paid what we think our labor is worth, we have a number of options. We can strike or protest for higher wages. We can implore government to require our employers to give us more money. But we can also improve the quality and effectiveness of our labor. We can improve our output as workers. We can gain new skills and experience that makes our work more valuable.

This reality highlights another unseen aspect of the minimum-wage debates. We often focus on the challenges faced by minimum-wage workers in their current situation. But the reality of most minimum-wage jobs is that they aren’t really suited to be work for a lifetime. These are, by and large and by definition, entry-level and stepping-stone jobs. There’s a sense in which it is dishonoring to the potential and innate dignity of the human person to presume that they should work for the rest of their lives as a line cook at McDonald’s. In fact, we might say there’s something wrong with a system that would incentivize people to remain in unfulfilling jobs simply because they pay well enough to live on comfortably.

This is what I mean by the limits of empathy. I’m pretty confident Dr. Ballor really means to suggest policies that benefit most people. The thing that jumped out to me, though, was how he assumes the career path works. You work a minimum wage for a while and then throughout your life develop the skills to land better-paying jobs. When I did low-wage jobs like supermarket cashier in high school, I found two types of employees: middle-class teenage workers, for which this career path probably was true, and adult lifelong workers worked their long-term and didn’t seem to view it as a stepping stone to something else. It wasn’t that they didn’t want anything more; rather, they didn’t have access to the training or experience or whatever it would take them to qualify for higher-paying jobs, or they did and those jobs simply weren’t available.

Because we approach things from our own experience and suggest things that would work well for us in that position, we tend to work for things that work good for us and less well for people not like us. We are more likely to help out the guy who can’t get on an airplane because his credit card was rejected than the person who is asking for spare change out on the sidewalk. I’m really not against encouraging more middle-class, higher-wage and higher-skill jobs. But we need to realize that just doing that will only help some kinds of workers, namely those people who actually have a career path. McDonalds as a way to earn spending money in high school and college is one thing, but it doesn’t in itself provide the experience you need to get a higher paying job. My empathy as a graduate student looking at her funding running out and pondering the possibility of working as an adjunct, never finding a tenure-track job, the unpredictability of it all: these things naturally make me more empathetic with folks who don’t have real prospects for finding better-paying, more stable work than I would expect someone in a more established career like Dr. Ballor might have. And he will naturally have more empathy for people making the climb up a career ladder. This is not a criticism: we both have our blind spots, as does everybody, and they’re worth recognizing.

There’s one point where I really do have to disagree with Dr. Ballor, where he said “What the wages represent is not a commentary on the value of the human person as such. Rather, wages are a sign, a token really, of the value of our work to others.” I get what he’s trying to say, and as an antidote to the idea that unemployed people are a failure as a person, that’s a good message and I appreciate him getting that out there. But there still seems like something disrespectful to the dignity of the poor when you say there’s no injustice, no moral problem in letting the employers set whatever wage the market will bear. From a Christian perspective the purpose of work isn’t to enrich the already-rich, it’s to give people the ability to do something meaningful and to provide for their material needs. I don’t find a lifetime of working at a restaurant to be demeaning in itself, though I think the way fast food workers are treated usually ends up being that way. But denying my fellow humans –all humans, not just those who remind me of myself– of the opportunity to work for six days and have enough left over to rest on the seventh seems like a turning-away of how I understand Christian ethics on this point. We are commanded both to feed the hungry (by Jesus and throughout the Old Testament), and by Paul to fight against idleness.

I interpret this to mean that there is a moral component to economic systems, and that a system that doesn’t provide good work or where a person can’t fulfill basic needs even when working diligently isn’t a just one. How we get there is a messy business. I do believe that capitalism is a good way of distributing resources, particularly if we get a better wealth distribution so it’s more about rewarding hard work when we divvy up luxuries (as opposed to things that would satisfy actual needs) and also so people decide for themselves what they most need and want. And I’m willing to ask the question: is rising the minimum wage or the low-wage salary at certain companies the best way to do this?

But even if the answer to that turns out to be no, we need to keep in mind the point behind our economic system: it’s to enable the best life possible, to satisfy the most needs and desires possible, across the board. People of conscience will disagree with how to get there, But I think there’s a morality to how we run our economic systems, and just because something is what the free market will pay, that doesn’t necessarily make it good. And as a first step down that road? We need to check ourselves to look for who we are empathizing with, whose experiences seem most natural to us, and if that’s just people like us, we need to try to broaden it.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 9th, 2013 07:20 pm (UTC)
I work retail, as I think you know. Our company pays adults over 18 just a little over minimum wage, but not much.

Let me say this: there are many who work these types of jobs because they actually enjoy them. I like retail; I was actually shocked to find how much I liked it after my first such job. I enjoy meeting people, waiting on them, helping them find what they need, and talking to them. I don't much mind the less fun jobs like cleaning or stocking.

BUT there is a big difference between me and the majority of my co-workers. I have a husband who supports the family. This is not to say we could easily dispense with my small wages--but the truth is my discount is of more value to our budget than my paycheck is. I work only the hours I can physically handle, and if I had to quit, or if I got laid off, it would be painful, but we wouldn't starve.

For many of my co-workers, however, this is not an option for them. For older workers who should be retired by now, but can't afford to on their own, for single moms, for young married people who are having to work 2 or 3 similar jobs to make ends meet--the option of quitting or finding something else is not feasible. I am all too aware of the fact that if something happened to my husband, I too would probably be pushed into such a position. Right now I only work the number of hours I can physically handle, and I am exhausted after my shift. If I think I had to do it for 40 hours a week, I think I would soon be sick.

Still, there really ARE a lot of people who like the work they do in customer service, even though the pay sucks. There's a waitress at a local restaurant here who was written up in the paper a year or so back: she's been working there for over 50 years. She enjoys the customers and her co-workers. But she's in her mid-70s, and I can't help but think that if she could earn a living wage, she might actually be able to cut back her hours and not have to be so physically exhausted.

Wouldn't it be nice if people were actually paid commensurate to the value of their jobs for society? (And I mean the actual value, not the rather snobbish attitude that a certain kind of work is "beneath" others. Society could get along fine without another football player or rock star; it would not do nearly so well without sanitation workers or caregivers or people to serve or sell food.)

Edited at 2013-08-09 07:21 pm (UTC)
Aug. 11th, 2013 07:02 pm (UTC)
I wonder if sometimes it's as much familiarity with reactions as it is with circumstances that makes people act more sympathetic within their own socioeconomic band. In the airport example, the person paying the baggage fee could reasonably expect a reaction within a certain, non-threatening range. There was basically no risk of a physical or verbal assault, and also no risk of the person being so loudly or protractedly grateful that they drew the attention of others - maybe not a problem for some people, but an acutely problematic for an introvert. So while the sympathetic impulse might be there for people in other circumstances, it's tempered by fear of the unknown. Which I realize isn't an excuse, but it's something I've pondered without reaching a real solution.

As for how to achieve an ideal economic system... my pet idea is that the top salaries/benefits at any company should be legally linked to the lowest salaries in some way. I mean, if the lowest-paid worker is paid $7.25/hour, then would it be unreasonable to limit CEO compensation to, say, $725 per hour, or about $1.5 million a year? Or it could be linked to the average salary in the company, so a greedy CEO would benefit more from a bunch of full-time minimum wage workers than from twice as many half-time ones.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )



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