The Minimum Wage and the Local Food Movement


SYLVIA LOVELY

Photo by  Kici, via Wikipedia Commons

Photo by Kici, via Wikipedia Commons

Having just read the book One Summer by Bill Bryson, I am appalled at how dreadful many say the “good old days” were. By profiling the events of the summer of 1927, Bryson chronicles an incredible time in American history. The good stuff included Lindbergh flying non-stop to Paris in what surely boggled minds, and Babe Ruth breaking all time records with his baseball prowess. But a startling revelation about the era was the dark side of the moon — racism and sexism and other atrocities were rampant.

Nichola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, with the misfortune of being Italians and alleged radicals, were convicted and executed for a payroll robbery – a charge supported by no credible evidence. (One of the more eloquent speeches in history was from Sacco professing his innocence in broken English.) And that isn’t all. Al Capone was terrorizing Chicago (he said he was only showing the folks a good time) and Henry Ford made Donald Sterling look like a choir boy.

Before reading One Summer, I was more than a little smug that perhaps ours is– albeit maligned and vilified — an enlightened age. We have after all made headway in enacting laws to stop racism and sexism, and the court systems works “most” of the time. We are acknowledging our “softer” side with men staying home with the kids and helping with the house work. The local food movement is about good food and even better, community camaraderie. What can be wrong with all that?

Well, just when you thought the world was safe, something comes along to nag at your conscience and be as welcome to your bliss as a basketful of snakes at a summer picnic. You find yourself conflicted because like anything worthwhile, the issue that arises is complicated. So, it is with the minimum wage debate. Many say “raise it — it is about time!” Others shout out “who are these folks who want more pay – causing my $1 hamburger bargain to go away.” Or, how about workers who can barely afford their rent trying to save their pennies for even a $1 hamburger.

So, what is skinny on all this? In the interest of full disclosure, I am a restaurant owner and am thus directly affected not only by the minimum wage debate but from the full array of employment issues that confront us as we eek our way out of recession. I see college educated young people unable to snag a job in their chosen field, instead waiting tables. I see older folks newly out of work trying to cobble together multiple low wage jobs, often in the food business, in order to pay the debts they incurred when times were good. Or, to slightly alter the famous line in the movie, Sixth Sense: I see angry people.

It is noted that many states and cities explored the option of raising the minimum wage even as the feds refused. Seattle made history by raising its minimum wage to a whopping $15 – the highest in the country. Contrast that with the minimum federal wage of $7.35. The backdrop to all this is informative. It is clear from all kinds of brainy studies that the middle class is hollowing out. Though statistics vary, the overall picture is clear. Job growth is happening in two sectors, the high end and the low end. Estimates are that growth in jobs was highest at the low end – with estimates as high as 58% (Laura D’Andrea Tyson, September 20, 2013, Economix blogs, New York Times – “The Quality of Jobs: The New Normal and the Old Normal”).

Economists and pundits argue endlessly about the efficacy of raising the minimum wage. The arguments boil down to this – pay people a livable wage versus the argument that you will put them out of work altogether as small business scramble to cut costs. Will the consumer stand for more expensive hamburgers? Is reforming the tax system a better option? What are reasonable people to do? Income inequality is growing. Clearly, good jobs with decent pay and meaning must be created. The food business can play a role.

The local food movement, in part a backlash against a bewildering and meaningless universe bullying its way into our lives, has always been about quality and fairness to farmers, producers and consumers. We don’t know the answers but we know the question: How do we create a new and improved local food movement that is broad and inclusive. The Local Food Movement has broadened to address the plight of tomato pickers in Florida – let’s bring in the cash register front liners. Let a reasoned debate begin.

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