“I realize it’s no shame to be poor … but it’s no great honor either.” — Tevye, “Fiddler on the Roof”
I got an email from Jim Hagedorn a couple of weeks ago … he’s the fellow that claims to represent me in the U.S. Congress, although I can’t say he does a very good job of it. Anyway, Jim enclosed a letter he and some of his buddies sent to Governor Walz pushing for him to turn down the $300 federal unemployment insurance weekly bonus that’s been in effect for the last few months.
Jimmy insists giving all this money to people without jobs is hurting business and supports his argument by claiming some Minnesota folks are drawing the equivalent of $26 an hour and that fully 40% are receiving more in benefits than they would earn on the job.
Well, that sounded a little rich to me, so I dug out my calculator and did a little arithmetic. First off, $300 for a full-time job works out to $7.50 an hour — hardly a princely sum. Now subtract that from the $26 an hour Jim is touting and you have $19.50. Now Minnesota unemployment compensation runs about half of a worker’s wage, so to draw that $19.50 the recipient must have been making around $39 an hour before being laid off — that’s $81,120 a year, if you don’t have a calculator handy. Let’s just say, I’m guessing those folks will be back on the job as soon as their old employers call them back.
And as for that other 40% — the folks he says are making more sitting on the sofa than flipping burgers and raking leaves? Do the same math and we see that folks have to be earning better than $600 a week for them to make more by going back to work.
The fact that so many people are poorly paid doesn’t make them stupid — you don’t have to be a congressman to work a calculator.
Hagedorn claims businesses are desperate for workers and cutting unemployment benefits will fill those open jobs — as soon as folks are broke enough, hungry enough, desperate enough.
There’s an alternative, of course. Well paid jobs rarely go unfilled. If employers make work worth the worker’s while, they will come.
One more thing, before we go into that. Just a little before I got Jim’s missive I came across a short piece in the Strib business section, a profile of Cory Barry, CEO of Best Buy. Now among other fun facts to know and tell it listed Cory’s annual compensation — $8,434,482, which, if you’ve still got your calculator out, comes out to a rough $4,055 an hour. Now I don’t begrudge Ms. Barry a comfortable lifestyle, but I would like to remind everyone that the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour — which means that Ms. Barry makes better than a minimum wage employee’s yearly paycheck every working day before she knocks off for an early lunch.
For that matter, consider … the median pay for Ms. Barry’s employees is just under $600 a week — meaning half her workforce doesn’t make as much by going to work for a year as she does each and every day.
I bring up Ms. Barry’s good fortune only to illustrate that perhaps we might think again before we brand folks greed, lazy and antisocial because they are less than eager to take jobs that don’t pay enough to put shoes on their feet, keep a roof overhead and food on the table, much less cover luxuries like a visit to the clinic, a filling for an aching tooth or a tank of gas for a worn out car. I’d be so bold to say that the problem here isn’t unemployment paying too much, but jobs paying too little.
Can we afford to pay them more? Well, if Cory Barry’s gonna pull down $8 million, it ought not be at the expense of the blue-smocked worker bees that keep her stores humming. Somehow, we’ve come to accept the notion that it’s up to poor people’s lives and labor to subsidize businesses that choose not to pay their workers a living wage. Accordingly, the comforts of the affluent are paid for by the sacrifices of the poorest among us — sort of like welfare stood on its head.
So, blessed are the poor … they keep down the price of McNuggets.