In a rich, post-industrial society, where most people walk around with supercomputers in their pockets and a person can have virtually anything delivered to his or her doorstep overnight, it seems wrong that people who work should have to live in poverty. Yet in America, there are more than ten million members of the working poor: people in the workforce whose household income is below the poverty line. Looking around, it isn’t hard to understand why. The two most common occupations in the United States are retail salesperson and cashier. Eight million people have one of those two jobs, which typically pay about $9–$10 per hour. It’s hard to make ends meet on such meager wages. A few years ago, McDonald’s was embarrassed by the revelation that its internal help line was recommending that even a full-time restaurant employee apply for various forms of public assistance.
Poverty in the midst of plenty exists because many working people simply don’t make very much money. This is possible because the minimum wage that businesses must pay is low: only $7.25 per hour in the United States in 2016 (although it is higher in some states and cities). At that rate, a person working full-time for a whole year, with no vacations or holidays, earns about $15,000—which is below the poverty line for a family of two, let alone a family of four. A minimum-wage employee is poor enough to qualify for food stamps and, in most states, Medicaid. Adjusted for inflation, the federal minimum is roughly the same as in the 1960s and 1970s, despite significant increases in average living standards over that period. The United States currently has the lowest minimum wage, as a proportion of its average wage, of any advanced economy, contributing to today’s soaring levels of inequality. At first glance, it seems that raising the minimum wage would be a good way to combat poverty.