Thursday, March 31, 2016

Minimum wage debate exposes NNY's self fulfilling prophesy

  The economy in northern New York hasn't seen significant improvement in decades. Stagnant wages well below regional averages, a weakened industrial base, and a complete dependency on Fort Drum as the economic glue holding the region together are just some of the examples of an economy that is in desperate need of a proverbial shot in the arm. The area really doesn't attract superstar businesses, despite touting a good quality of life, generally cheap land, and an ample, hard-working, dependable work force. This is despite the hard work of job development officials and elected officials who make it their focus to attract new businesses.

  What most fail to see is how the region has been positioned as an underachiever. Whether by accident or deliberately, the northern New York economy has been kept at a level below the radar screen. Low wages have become the norm, even for what would be considered to be high-paying jobs. Very few people even make a six figure salary. And what is considered to be a 'good-paying' job is far below salary levels in other regions. When queried about this condition, the answer always seems to be, "It's the north country, that's what the salary levels are here."

  Despite the existence of an abundance of colleges and universities in the region or nearby, there is not an over-arching expectation that young people graduate from high school and go to college. While the value of selecting a trade or other profession that doesn't require a college degree is very relevant, it shouldn't become an excuse to not pursue higher education. That actually hurts those vocations in that a number young people are choosing that path by default, not because of interest and skill. They decide, or are maybe aided by friends and family to think that they aren't college material. The notion of even applying to a college is dismissed too often. Affordability is not really a factor - community college is certainly affordable and SUNY college costs are not nearly as high as private institutions, though financial aid can be more generous at private colleges than at SUNY schools.

  The number of college-bound students is all too low in this region and has become an 'accepted' outcome. This is a major contributor to the region's lower than average income levels. And this is a self-fulfilling prophesy - the accepting of underachievement which in turn allows employers to maintain a lower wage level. So when the proposal to raise the minimum wage came around, northern New Yorkers could not comprehend its logic. Those who make a higher income seem to appreciate the divide between minimum wage earners and themselves. Businesses make the argument that it will cost too much to pay minimum wage workers more. Even companies that already pay their employees' wages higher than minimum wage argue that raising it would spur their employees to demand even higher wages.

  This exposes class warfare at its most basic level. Minimum wage workers are often bestowed a judgement by the establishment class that they are somehow less worthy of a living wage. This same class - predominantly the business owners - call the raise proposal too expensive, yet often fail to show appreciable evidence that paying workers a dollar or so more per hour (the proposal phases the raise in incrementally over five or more years) would put them essentially out of business.

  Employee motivation is a key factor to an effective and efficient workforce. Employees are motivated by a number of elements, but none greater than the ability to make an income that provides a roof over their heads, food on their table, and clothes on their backs. The current minimum wage, which has not risen in proportion to inflation for many years, simply does not provide for these basic needs. Yet all too many businesses in northern New York offer only minimum wage at the entry level.

  It is this rather stagnant ideology that has helped businesses perpetuate the practice of offering lower wages in general across the region. They reject the notion that higher disposable income for more people via higher wages will be returned through more purchases of goods and services, resulting in increased business revenue. And in doing so, they keep the overall wage levels of the region low. The establishment class then wonders out loud why there is a brain drain of young people who do choose to go to college and then leave the area permanently. The ultimate self-fulfilling prophesy.