BUSINESS
02/22/2013 06:01 pm ET | Updated Feb 23, 2013

Minimum Wage Proposal Inspires Brooklyn Mall Debate: 'If People Earn $9, They Get Comfortable'

BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- If President Barack Obama succeeds in raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour, Abby Charles, a baker at a branch of the Mrs. Fields Cookies franchise, will see her hourly pay go up by $1.50.

As she took a break from rolling out the dough for a batch of pigs-in-a-blanket on Friday afternoon, Charles seemed to take umbrage at the news that the president's proposal has inspired heated debate. "More is always better," she said bluntly.

The Atlantic Center shopping mall where Charles works is in the middle of Brooklyn, the most populous borough of New York City. It's precisely the sort of place that typifies the changes that have beset the American economy in recent decades, as higher-paying manufacturing jobs have been traded in for low-wage, service-sector work. Here, in the Chuck E. Cheese and the McDonald's and the Target, people work for minimum wage or slightly above it, earning paychecks that often don't stretch far enough to cover their bills.

As low-wage workers at Atlantic Center absorbed the prospect of a raise, they said they looked forward to the relief and comfort that an extra $50 at the end of the week would bring, even as they acknowledged they'd still be left facing financial challenges.

"It probably won't help you move into a place in Manhattan," said Larry Shields, the manager at the Mrs. Fields shop. "But it will help."

Charles said she'd use the money to buy more groceries and take her daughter to a movie now and then. "Everything you want to get done costs money," she said.

Around the corner and down the hall, Joy Holder, the owner of a small beauty shop, said she hoped wages would stay the same. "A minimum-wage increase causes you to hire less," she said, giving voice to an argument often advanced in recent days by those who say they support small businesses and oppose Obama's plan.

Holder dismissed the suggestion that people could use the wage increase to buy better food, pay for better day-care for their kids and in general improve the quality of their lives -- perhaps in ways that would make them better workers.

"The ideal is that," she said. "The ideal is that they're getting better. But that's not the reality. Human nature is what it is."

Holder's is the rare small business that rents space in the mall: She employs just three workers and does much of the hands-on work herself. As she spoke, she used a razor blade to shape a client's eyebrows into perfect peaks.

The presence of the razor did not dissuade the client, Ganeza Walls, from taking exception to Holder's views. "Everything is getting expensive. You got Con Edison, you got cable, you got car insurance. How you gonna survive on $7.25?" she asked, referring to the current federal minimum wage.

Holder replied that the government should lower the cost of college education to make it easier for people to get good-paying jobs. "If people earn $9, they get comfortable," she said. "They say, 'I don't need to go to college, I don't need to look for a better job.'"

Walls disagreed. You can get comfortable on $12 an hour, she said. Not nine.

Back at the cookie shop, Shields, the manager, said he didn't think a wage hike would hurt business. The store's owner gives employees raises every six months anyway, Shields said. "He don't mind, but he follows the government guidelines."

Shields said he started at minimum wage about five years ago and gradually got to the point where he now makes $12 an hour, so he knows from first-hand experience how much a difference even a small raise can make. "If you run out of bread, you can buy bread," he said. "You can get the top-shelf cereal instead of the bottom-shelf cereal."

He also pointed out that if wages go up, more people might actually have the money to spend on treats like cookies.

"Right now, a lot of people come in here and see the prices and can't afford it," he said.

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