Back to School for The New York Times

For huge swaths of the country, it’s Back to School week. But as schools open their doors and welcome students back, massive labor shortages are making it difficult to put teachers in classrooms, or even get students to school in the first place. And it’s no secret why: low pay has made it notoriously difficult for administrators to find educators and bus drivers.

So it’s baffling that The New York Times was out last week describing the minimum wage as an “afterthought.” Naturally, this is the part where we make a joke about the Times needing to go back to school to better understand the economics of the minimum wage. We’ll spare you the cute pun, but seriously: this is exactly why we need a federal wage floor.

Last week, Ben Casselman and Lydia DePillis of The New York Times penned an article which argued that, because of recent trends in the labor market and economy, the $7.25 federal minimum wage has become irrelevant and meaningless. Over the last two years, as the economy has rebounded from the COVID pandemic, the labor market has been pretty hot: demand for goods and services has outpaced the supply of workers that can provide them, which has led to low unemployment and wage increases for workers, particularly those in low-wage industries. The result has been most low-wage workers actually earning more than their state’s minimum wage. In fact, only 68,000 workers across the country now earn the $7.25 federal minimum.

Unfortunately, Casselman and DePillis miss the forest for the trees. As we discussed last week, an economy that leaves workers perpetually riddled with anxiety over how they’ll pay the bills is unstable regardless of the macroeconomic numbers. That’s not to say there hasn’t been progress; it’s just that there hasn’t been enough. When it comes to the minimum wage, the Times wildly misunderstands the moment.

Don’t take it from us, though. Take it from our conservative friends at The Wall Street Journal who, just two days before The New York Times published their article, dropped a piece that presented findings showing that companies across a range of industries are now reducing starting salaries for new recruits. To be fair, Casselman and DePillis raise the specter of this happening in the event of a labor market cooldown, but they fail to recognize that a cooldown is, in fact, already here. And that’s the point: the minimum wage should not be an “afterthought” because it protects workers from fluctuations in the market like the ones that we are witnessing now.

Casselman and DePillis also fail to appreciate that the wage gains low-wage workers received over the last two years were insufficient in their own right. A brief mention of how workers are still struggling toward the end of the article serves to demonstrate just how off-base their framing is. According to data that Casselman and DePillis present from the Labor Department, low-wage workers in Washington state are doing the best in the country: workers in the 10th percentile there are now earning roughly $16.50 an hour. But even that’s not enough to survive, let alone allow people to thrive. The MIT Living Wage calculator estimates that a full-time, childless adult in Washington state would need to earn at least a $19.58 hourly wage to afford basic essentials.

And let’s not forget about inflation – because Casselman and DePillis surely did. While it’s true that workers have experienced wage growth, inflation has unfortunately swallowed that growth and put most households at a financial loss. This past June was the first time in two years that wage growth surpassed price increases; while pay bumps are pay bumps, should we really be doing a victory lap when most working families are actually being pushed further underwater by the rising cost of living?

So, to bring this back to our original point, let’s talk about the specific workers on our mind this week: the teachers and staff heading back to school.

As we mentioned, there is a teacher shortage in America. As of August 2022, there were 36,000 teacher vacancies across the country; the shortage is particularly pronounced in schools with large populations of students of color and from low-income families. There is also a bus driver shortage that has disrupted the beginning of the school year in many parts of the country.

To understand why America is grappling with these shortages, look no further than educators’ notoriously low pay. Here are some numbers to put this in context for you:

  • The median teacher in America makes an annual salary of just over $61,000 a year. In some states, the average teacher makes below $50,000.
  • Nearly 1 in 5 public school teachers work a second job.
  • In 2022, the average teacher spent $560 out-of-pocket on school supplies for their classroom. Nearly 1 in 5 spent more than $1000. (Teachers often use services like GoFundMe or Amazon Wish Lists to solicit help from their families and friends to set up their classrooms.)
  • The maximum that teachers can deduct for unreimbursed classroom supplies on their tax returns is $300. Meanwhile, billionaires can deduct millions by using their private jets and superyachts for “business.”

In short, despite what The New York Times would have you believe, most workers in America – like teachers and bus drivers – are in desperate need of help. Workers collectively did experience wage gains over the last two years, but that doesn’t mean we should be apathetic about raising the federal minimum wage. If anything, especially as the labor market continues to cool, we should redouble our efforts to secure workers’ gains by implementing a stable federal wage floor.

If history is any guide, most employers will try to pay their employees as little as possible to boost their profit margins. As recent disturbing reports have made clear, they will even hire children to work hazardous jobs to avoid paying adult workers adequate wages. While teachers are bending over backwards and toeing the poverty line to educate and raise future generations, corporations won’t think twice about putting them to work to save a buck. This is why we need to secure the federal wage floor.

The pandemic made clear that many of our country’s lowest-paid workers are the ones doing essential work. We can live without C-suite executives analyzing the stock market all day, but we can’t go a day without teachers educating our kids. It’s time to ensure that we compensate them accordingly.

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