Liberally yours: A living wage is the essence of American exceptionalism

Thom Hartmann Host, the Thom Hartmann Program
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Liberally Yours is a regular column at the Daily Caller featuring Thom Hartmann, the nation’s number one progressive radio host, in conversation with conservatives and libertarians. Today, he’s joined by Dr. Daniel J. D’Amico, an assistant professor of business at the Joseph A. Butt S.J. College of Business at Loyola University New Orleans, to debate the minimum wage. 

Living in poverty affects more than a person’s physical health. According to a new study by Harvard scientists, the constant strain of worrying about finances can actually lower someone’s IQ by as much as 13 percent. Researchers say that’s about the same mental strain as losing a night’s sleep.

Apparently, when people are focused on how to divvy up the little money they have, they spend very little time thinking about anything else. That lack of cognitive “free time” can lead to bad decision making, which, in turn, often leads to poor health and economic choices.

We’ve known that the mental stress of being poor can lead to health issues like high blood pressure, obesity, and mental illness. Now we understand some of those connections.

In an interview with the Washington Post, on the study’s authors said, “Poverty is the equivalent of pulling an all-nighter. Picture yourself after an all-nighter. Being poor is like that every day.”

And here’s the worst part. The vast majority of poor people of United States are employed, many of them working two or three jobs.

We used to all agree, if you’re in America, that if a person keeps their nose clean and works hard at it full-time job, they should make enough to be able to raise a family. It was the rationale for the minimum wage.

But billionaires like the Walton heirs have fought to keep the minimum wage at a level below what could be called a living wage for decades. And so, instead of paying their workers well, the Walton heirs take so many billions out of the company themselves that those six individuals own more wealth than over 100 million Americans combined.

The minimum wage in 1968, which in today’s dollars would be about $10.25, was at least a starting point to a livable wage.

Raising our minimum wage to where it was 1968 would lift millions of people out of poverty, and reduce our welfare and food stamp rolls. And it would not mean that burgers or goods Wal-Mart would be more expensive; it would mean that the billionaires would have to bake only hundreds of millions instead of billions.

Nobody who lives in the richest nation on earth and works hard through their life should have to live in such grinding poverty that it impacts the ability of their minds to function. This is a moral crisis for America.

If the only way a business can run is by paying below poverty wages and relying on taxpayers to subsidize the company by supplementing their employees food and living expenses with things like food stamps and section 8 housing, that business should not exist.

Is Franklin Roosevelt pointed out, the best welfare program is a good job. It’s time to once again say what generations of Americans have said in the past. A living wage so people can live the American dream isn’t just important as an economic principle; it is a basic part of what has made America an exceptional nation.


While research showing the effect of poverty upon measured IQ are fascinating, it is a huge leap to interpret them justifying the minimum wage. It certainly does not imply, as Hartmann ridiculously suggests, that Wal-Mart “should not exist.”

First, there’s really no good evidence to suggest minimum wage laws make poverty practically easier that would rebound low IQ. Economists have long argued and empirically demonstrated that increases in the minimum wage create unemployment particularly amongst poorer and under-educated populations. Yes one study found the opposite, and yes it is possible to find lots of economists who let their hearts speak louder than their heads on this issue. But that infamous study has been responded to in droves, and the vast majority of economic research, economists in general, and labor economists especially agree that the minimum wage causes unemployment for the poor and less educated. Point of fact: the systematic unemployment of young black male high school drop outs has risen most amidst the time of the policy’s lifespan, as both are at peak today.

Combine the job prospects offered by large corporate retailers such as Wal-Mart, with the masses of more affordable goods and services they provide, and it seems far more reasonable to argue that Wal-Mart is giving a much needed and should be appreciated IQ boost to low income demographics rather than the other way around.

More concerning is Hartmann’s historical fantasy that “we used to all agree, if you’re in America, that if a person keeps their nose clean and works hard at it full-time job, they should make enough to be able to raise a family. It was the rationale for the minimum wage.” I agree with the former, hard work ought to be rewarded. But actually, the original rationale for the minimum wage was to serve as a protectionist and eugenicist strategy by vested labor unions to suppress employment of new immigrant groups. Frankly, ignoring the harmful effects of the minimum wage while staunchly advocating for its increase is a form of race and class complicity unacceptable for anyone with a reliable Internet connection (See: Bernstein and Leonard 2009 and Leonard 2009).

True liberals would be better to devote attention to social processes causing unarguably harm to the poor such as the war on drugs, our overzealous criminal justice system, mass incarceration, our failing public education policies, and immigration controls.