02/21/2013 07:15 pm ET Updated Apr 23, 2013

The Wages of Living

As the president said last week, "We were sent here to look out for our fellow Americans the same way they look out for one another, every single day, usually without fanfare, all across this country." He continued, "This country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another."

The day after his speech, after witnessing an accident during morning rush hour, I realized how far we are from this goal. The accident occurred about three cars in front of me at a fairly high speed. Instead of stopping, people immediately began to drive around the two victims, who were stalled helplessly in their cars, ribboned by a sea of glass. The sheer inconvenience of the near-death.

At first glance, the president's words are mere rhetorical fluff. They certainly weren't the lines that garnered the most attention. But with the victims of gun violence watching, Obama delivered a much-needed call for moral clarity from a secular leader. Religious conservatives rage against liberals because we are too often afraid to use the language of morality for social justice. Meanwhile Americans are standing around, waiting for someone else - private industries, private charities, corrupt churches -- to stop and see if others are hurt. We are afraid to leave the false comfort of our vehicles. And the first step towards helping others -- not through charity, but through hard work -- is raising the minimum wage.

I took a course with an economics professor who was dead set against the idea of a minimum wage. He explained simplistically that businesses have a certain amount of money dedicated for payroll, and that when they run through that money, they stop hiring. On the surface, he argued, raising the minimum wage seems reasonable. In reality, an increase of the minimum wage would increase unemployment. And a minimum-wage hike would increase outsourcing to countries without such protections.

Expect this argument from conservatives over the next umpteen months. It's wrong. It's wrong because it's inhumane to expect single parents who work full-time to survive on $14,500 a year. As they did with Obamacare, businesses will adjust. To rationalize away the need for a higher minimum wage is no different than witnessing a car crash -- only this time, millions of families are trapped -- and driving off on your own self-interested way.

During the campaign, we heard a lot about "the takers" from Romney and Ryan, specifically those who don't pay income tax. "The takers" give virtually nothing to the government in the form of revenue and extract resources from the more affluent. In many voters' minds, these people are the welfare queens who sit at home with twelve children and swipe their SNAP card until the magnetic strip runs dry.

I can tell you that I work with "those people" every day: recent, documented immigrants (undocumented children are ineligible for our program). These parents have unenviable jobs. Asbestos removal is a popular, higher-paying choice, which probably comes with risks I'd rather not imagine. I am embarrassed to think back on my complaints of teacher pay (which are legitimate, in context), but I was making 40k while my students' parents weren't even close to 20k. Now that I help students decide among financial aid packages, I know these numbers firsthand.

Many of us in the middle- and upper-class think back on our first minimum-wage jobs as steppingstones to our later successes -- we think about teenagers who shouldn't be earning $9 an hour. But we never raised families on those wages; we bought gas and video games and junk food with them. Back in North Carolina, pay in the Boston area seemed incredibly high. Yet the average rent in Boston is now $1,881. $600 a month as a graduate student in 2008 got me a third of an attic where I could barely fit a single bed. So Romney was right to tie the idea to the cost of living, even if he'd never had to worry about it himself.

And my teenage students working for fast-food minimum-wage? They might be the ones in charge of covering the rent in their homes. They might already be living on their own.

I'm all for decreasing people's dependence on government programs -- they diminish the inherent, well-earned pride of full-time work. But we have to start paying them for their work first. It's hard to make a living when the "makers" make the laws.