by Brad Polumbo
Mike Rowe knows the value of hard work. The former star of “Dirty Jobs” gained notoriety for the Discovery Channel program, which featured him going undercover at some of the toughest and grossest jobs imaginable. From cleaning bat poop to testing shark suits by jumping into a shark feeding frenzy, Rowe has more appreciation than most for the dignity of labor.
So, it’s worth taking the actor’s recent warning on the perils of minimum wage hikes seriously.
Advocates for a federal $15 minimum wage argue that it’s the bare minimum that workers deserve and that more than doubling the mandated wage nationwide would uplift workers who are struggling to get by. Critics often point out that minimum wage hikes cause unemployment.
However, in an interview with Fox Business, Rowe instead emphasized the way that such an arbitrarily high minimum wage would take away the first rung on the ladder that many workers eventually climb.
“I want everybody who works hard and plays fair to prosper,” Rowe said. “I want everybody to be able to support themselves. But if you just pull the money out of midair you’re going to create other problems.”
“There is a ladder of success that people climb,” he continued. “Some of those jobs that are out there for seven, eight, nine dollars an hour, in my view, they’re simply not intended to be careers. They’re not intended to be full-time jobs. They’re rungs on a ladder.”
“[Those jobs] are ways for people to get experience in the workforce doing a thing that might not necessarily pay you as much as you’d like, but nevertheless serves a real purpose,” Rowe added. “I worry that the path to a skilled trade can be compromised when you offer an artificially high wage for, I hate the expression, but an unskilled job.”
Rowe’s poignant warning is borne out by the statistics.
Advocates of minimum wage hikes often frame their case around hypothetical minimum wage workers who are adult breadwinners with families to feed. But, statistically speaking, that’s not who works in most minimum wage jobs.
According to the Labor Department, only about 1% of people older than 25 and about 1% of full-time workers earn the federal minimum wage. This is in part because many states have higher state-level minimum wages. But even in states that only are bound by the federal minimum wage like South Carolina, only roughly 5% of hourly workers earn the minimum wage, and that’s the highest rate of any state.
While true for some individuals, the narrative of the breadwinning adult minimum wage worker is exaggerated. Indeed, because these jobs are disproportionately worked by young people and part-timers, ample economic research shows that minimum wage hikes disproportionately hurt teenagers and young adults.
This is where Rowe’s warning comes in. The first rung of the labor force ladder is often unglamorous and low-paying, but it’s essential for getting started on the climb.
When I started looking for my first job in high school, it was pretty difficult to get my foot in the door. I had no work experience and an uncomfortably large amount of blank space on my job applications. Eventually, I got a job at a local Subway sandwich shop.
I’ll be the first to admit I wasn’t a very good employee. I was a gangly, clumsy, and accident-prone teenager who ate far more than my worth in foot-longs when the manager wasn’t watching.
So, I can say with near certainty that if the law had mandated a minimum wage of $15, I never would have gotten that job. After all, as economist Thomas Sowell has famously said, “The real minimum wage is always zero.” The truth is, I produced far less than $15 an hour in value—and employers don’t make hiring decisions based on charity.
But that job, while less than ideal, gave me the work experience, references, and track record of showing up on time that helped me get my next job; this time in childcare at an above-minimum wage hourly rate. Later, as a college student, I got a coveted night job working as a security guard on campus, also far above minimum wage, on the strength of my past work experience as well.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Would I have floundered forever if minimum wage laws had rendered me unable to get my first job at Subway? Probably not, but it would have been a serious obstacle for me. Similarly, a $15 minimum wage would prove a serious hurdle to many other young people getting a start.
That’s what Mike Rowe means when he warns against the benevolent-sounding “Fight for $15.” Intentions aside, you can’t help uplift people by taking the first rung of the career ladder away.
WATCH: Who Is the Minimum Wage Really Protecting?
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