Now that he's officially a presidential candidate, Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) is learning that every word he says is parsed in a way that it might not otherwise be. Which isn't to say that he wasn't being intentional when he called the idea of a minimum wage "lame" while talking to Fox News' Sean Hannity Monday night. But it makes a closer look at his comment more than warranted.
"The left claims that they're for American workers," Walker told Hannity. "They've just got really lame ideas, things like the minimum wage. Instead of focusing on that, we need to talk about how we give people the skills and the education, the qualifications they need to take on careers that pay far more than minimum wage."
Walker's tapping in to the conservative opposition to recent proposals to significantly increase the minimum wage, especially for fast food workers. After the Congressional Budget Office looked at the effects of lifting the baseline to $10.10, Pew Research pointed out that it would "fuel both sides of the minimum-wage debate" -- those who want to move people out of poverty and those who think that it will end up costing jobs. It will cost some jobs, the CBO figured -- but with the benefit of putting $17 billion more in real income in the pockets of the poorest workers.
The governor has crafted a third category. Last fall, he told the editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that he doesn't think the minimum wage "serves a purpose" because the debate becomes "what the lowest levels are at. I want people to make, like I said the other night, two or three times that."
If the purpose the minimum wage is meant to serve is to lift people out of poverty, Pew points out that Walker's right: Most minimum wages aren't high enough to do that. The minimum wage is indeed lame, in the sense that it's relatively impotent. Earning a minimum wage in 2014 was enough for a single person not to live in poverty, but not anyone with a family -- and not everywhere across the country.
In part, that's because the minimum wage -- like wages on the whole -- has stayed fairly flat, meaning that its spending power has diminished. (Prior to three increases in 2007 through 2009, the last minimum wage increase was in 1997.)
What Walker's trying to do, though, is reframe the issue. Increasing the minimum wage would, by Pew's assessment, result in a net boost to real incomes of $2 billion. But Walker and other conservatives would rather focus on getting more people jobs that pay a higher salary. The left's plan is lame in that sense because it is a Band-Aid to the real problem of opportunity. Like welfare, they might argue, it provides some disincentive to self-improvement.
Self-improvement is challenging when you're living in poverty. And if Walker's goal is to "give people the skills and the education" to get better paying jobs, a minimum wage job can help fill that gap.
Here's a story to that end: "My first job was washing dishes at the Countryside Restaurant. Then, I moved up to the big times and started flipping hamburgers in high school at McDonald’s to save up for college." Two minimum wage -- or barely-above-minimum wage -- jobs that allowed someone to go to college. The two can go hand-in-hand.
The person who worked at those restaurants, of course, was Scott Walker, and the story came from his announcement speech. When he was squirreling away money to attend Marquette, the salary he was making probably seemed less lame.