This past week fast food workers protested for an increase of America’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. On April 15, USNews.com reported that airport workers, home care workers, Walmart workers and adjunct professors also joined the protests. Protests have been planned for over 230 U.S. cities and college campuses in what organizers have called “the biggest ever mobilization of workers in the U.S.”
America is a country that suffers from a growing wealth gap. In 2014 The Pew Research Center reported that the average median net worth of white households is $141,900, while the average median net worth of African American households is $11,000 and the average Hispanic household is $13,700. In 2007 it was reported by William Domhoff from the University of California Santa Cruz that the wealthiest 20 percent of American citizens controlled 93 percent of the nation’s wealth; the remaining 80 percent of the population was distributed only seven percent of the wealth. So why is there still a growing wealth gap in America? Why do minorities make far less money than white members of society? Is it because people are no longer willing to work hard, or is it because a poor education system and a dying middle class labor market has led to a system of cyclical poverty?
Forty years ago people lived in an American culture that can be simplified into two universal beliefs: you could work hard, go to college, get a degree and you would get a job; or you could work hard and still get a job. However, people no longer believe this. Even though you are better off going to college and working hard in life, it is no longer believed to be a guarantee that by doing so you will be handed a job. Over the last several decades the middle class has been devastated by America’s rapidly changing labor market. Globalization has created far more than a fracture in the job market; the Baby Boomer generation is experiencing an iconoclasm in a whole class’s ability to earn a living. Globalization and the modern technological revolution have created an economic revolution in America producing Silicon Valley and more millionaires under the age of 40 than at any other time in this country’s history. These economic changes of the last 30 years have seen the super rich continue to gain wealth. However, the majority of Americans continue to suffer from the realities of a more competitive, technologically based global economy at the same time.
The current wealth gap is a result of the shift that a knowledge-based economy supports. No longer is work ethic the main determining factor in economic success. The power of inherited wealth influences educational obtainment to the point that the viability of the middle class labor market has been lost. There are two distinct classes in America the top 20 percent that controls 93 percent of the nation’s wealth makes up one class, while the second contains the rest of society which does not have the spending power to compete in the modern day global economy. This leaves the lower classes of American society with few options for work other than the food service industry.
The bottom line is that the power of wealth has created distinct classes in America. These classes have been alienated from each other because the education system is set up for the majority of lower class citizens to fail to move beyond the economic situation they are born into. The solution to improving how the poorer sectors of society educate themselves and raise their kids is not going to be found by limiting a whole class’ wage to $8 an hour.
The dialogue surrounding this issue should not begin by asking if these jobs are worth $15 in the current marketplace. The dialogue should be rooted in collective citizenship and taking responsibility for the poverty in America. America must start distributing wealth in a way that gives impoverished people a chance to move up in life. If America’s economic system does not become better equipped to do this then racial problems, poverty, gang activity, drug use and crime will continue to proliferate.
There must be multiple avenues towards social mobility, as success should be defined by how hard you work. This belief in the power of hard work cannot limit itself by only applying to certain professions, classes or races. In the wealthiest country in the world a food service worker should be given a living wage.
These protestors who work minimum wage jobs have hopes and dreams just like every Xavier student. However, they are different in that they were not born into families that could provide the financial support that the majority of Xavier students have received. Fast food workers are not just mindless hamburger flippers, they are Americans, fathers, grandfathers, mothers and most of all they want to work hard. Let’s listen to them and then decide what a fair wage is.
Henry Simanson is a senior Philosophy, Politics & the Public major from Memphis, Tenn.