What constitutes a moral issue? Is it, as many claim, a factual issue or a disagreement in belief? Or is it based on a particular type of experience or situation?
I happen to believe government budgets are a moral issue because they reflect priorities. My moral barometer for measuring societies includes how it treats its young, elderly and those on its margin -- economically and socially.
Using that as my rubric, it will probably come as no surprise that I consider the minimum wage to be a moral issue.
Does it make good economic sense (holistically) as well as moral sense to keep the federal minimum wage at $7.25 per hour? Where should the minimum wage stand today?
Perhaps the more important question: how should the minimum-wage discussion take place in the public discourse?
Resistance to raising the minimum relies heavily on defining it as a "job killer." It is an argument of irony suggesting that raising the minimum wage will hurt the very people that proponents are trying to help.
The counter-narrative argues that productivity has doubled since 1969, but the wages have not kept pace. Had the wages kept pace with productivity, it is quite possible the minimum wage would currently stand at $16.50 per hour.
One side wants to suppress wages, appearing to long for labor standards that predate the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. The other side vociferously demands $15 per hour.
How might we adjudicate these polarities? Should we continue the popular methodology, which is to find the argument that corresponds with our previously held beliefs, unable and/or unwilling to realize any validity in the opposing argument?
There simply isn't much data to suggest an increase in the minimum wage hurts employment. In fact, the opposite is true. Historically, increases in the minimum wage have enhanced consumer spending and labor productivity while minimizing turnover, which is commonly associated with low-wage jobs. Conversely, the aforementioned economic benefits are not realized when wages are kept low.
As much as I might philosophically support $15 per hour, might it be in the better interest for the overall health of the economy to shoot for a $12 minimum wage by 2020? An increase to $15 potentially pushes the economy into uncharted territory; it is uncomfortably high relative to the nation's median wage.
Moreover, $15-per-hour could very well be the benchmark that mitigates the associated economic benefits of raising the minimum wage by becoming a job killer. At $15 per hour, there are some states where that might place an individual in the 70th percentile in terms of wages. How could that not lead to an increase in unemployment?
There is indeed a strong persuasive argument that $15-per-hour could lift individuals out of poverty, but is it sustainable?
This is where the argument of irony is validated. Many low-wage workers have families and need additional take-home pay. But raising the minimum wage to a point that may look good on paper, in reality, is useless if leads to more people unemployed.
That's not to suggest there will be no job loss at an hourly wage of $12, but certainly not enough to become a deterrent.
When the North Carolina legislature prohibited local municipalities from creating anti-discrimination policies, it also prohibited local governments from raising minimum-wage levels above the state level for contractors with which it deals. This is punitive and immoral because it potentially allows for workers to be economically exploited.
But $12-per-hour by 2020 feels like the right floor for an issue that is best addressed regionally. It is unfathomable for New York City, San Francisco and Pocatello, Idaho to have the same minimum wage.
There are a number of high-wage cities and some states that may be able to exceed $12 per hour. But obviously, many will not be able to surpass it.
The moral argument for increasing the minimum wage is not so much the actual agreed upon wage, but rather that the conversation moves the trajectory toward a number that honors workers and is sustainable economically.
It is also important to note that there is a constant political will that does not allow closing the gap that began in 1969, when productivity outpaced wages. We're constantly in catch-up mode.