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Reeder: Raising minimum wage bad idea for Illinois

Scott Reeder

Scott Reeder

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Updated: February 27, 2014 6:15AM



I remember my first newspaper job, writing obituaries at the Galesburg Register-Mail over the summer, making $3.35 an hour. That was the federal minimum wage back then.

I don’t know how many times that news editor would yell at me and say the word “cemetery” does not have an “a” in it.

My story hardly is unique.

Just about everyone I know can look back on a low-paying job doing something like flipping burgers, bagging groceries or washing cars. Those jobs provided us with our introduction to the workforce.

They were where you learned skills such as showing up for work on time, following directions, treating customers politely — or spelling “cemetery” correctly.

The minimum wage was never intended to be a living wage, just a starting one.

There’s a push now to increase the Illinois minimum wage to $10 per hour from the current $8.25 per hour. The federal minimum wage is $7.25.

Gov. Pat Quinn has taken to comparing opponents of raising the minimum wage with Old Man Potter, the miserly banker in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” or Montgomery Burns, the greedy nuclear plant owner in “The Simpsons.”

Such comments make for good political theater, but they do little to advance public discourse on a challenging economic issue.

Everyone in this political debate wants a more prosperous society. We just disagree on how that should be accomplished.

The problem with Quinn’s plan is that the more you increase the cost of a commodity, the more that you suppress demand. That’s true of automobiles, candy bars, televisions and anything you can think of, including labor.

Every time employers consider hiring, they ask themselves how that investment will benefit their business.

If the cost of labor is too high, they will simply opt to hire fewer people or no one. It always has to pencil out.

Quinn wants to raise the minimum wage, but this would leave low-skilled workers vulnerable. Instead of having a low-paying job, they could face the prospect of no job at all.

“I’ll be the first to admit that you can’t support a family on a minimum-wage job,” said Kim Clarke Maisch, who heads the Illinois chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business. “But the vast majority of people with minimum-wage jobs are high school students, college students and people who aren’t the primary earner in their families.”

Illinois already has a minimum wage that’s higher than any of its neighbors — and it has an unemployment rate higher than them, too.

If a higher minimum wage would boost the state’s economy — as Quinn and some of his would-be Republican opponents contend — Illinois should have the most prosperous job market in the Midwest, not the worst.

Increasing the cost of labor will further exacerbate the problem. More low-skilled workers will be denied that first rung on the economic ladder that they need to climb out of poverty.

And let’s face it: working beats being unemployed any day of the week. Not only does work provide income, it also enhances a person’s self-worth.

Raising the minimum wage will mean fewer jobs for low-skilled workers.

And that’s denying opportunity to those who need it most.

Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist-in-residence at the Illinois Policy Institute, a nonprofit research group that supports the free market and limited government.



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