How Is Raising The Minimum Wage Going To Help This Guy?

On Monday nights I have a somewhat longer subway ride home than other nights, and on an express train that goes several minutes between stops.  And thus last night I found myself one of the recipients of an unusually long request for money from a young man with a sad life story. 

Now, granted that you can't take everything that these guys say at face value.  Still, some things you can tell by observation.  For example, he was in his twenties, and he was not taking good care of himself.  The initial pitch was pretty standard fare ("I'm homeless and hungry and really need your help.")  But that pitch didn't garner a single contribution from what was a fairly full car.  So after going the length of the car and back with his cup, and with plenty of time to the next stop, he proceeded with a monologue about his life's travails -- how his mother had abandoned him at a young age, how he had been abused for years in the City's foster care system, how he had then been mistreated in the shelter system, and finally, how we had no idea how hard it was for him to get out here every night and work the subways to try to get some scratch.  

Of course, that last pitch didn't really support the immediate aim of getting contributions -- Even if somebody gave him a relatively large contribution, it would only mean that maybe he could take tomorrow off; it wouldn't mean that he could stop working the subways.  To achieve that, he would need a job.  And here's the problem:  This is a guy who, in his current state, is very, very difficult to employ.  I can say with high confidence that in the huge Manhattan business community of major employers -- banks, financial institutions, law firms, accounting firms, publishers, advertising agencies, and on and on -- there is no job for this guy.  Even McDonald's would be an extremely tough sell.  He needs a bottom-of-entry-level job where you learn that you have to show up and look presentable to get paid.  Maybe a bodega; maybe a delivery service; maybe laborer at a construction site.   His hope is that some small, struggling business that can't hire anybody better will take a big risk on him.

"Taking a risk" is really the key concept.  It's not about some abstract concept of marginal productivity exceeding his wage.  As an employer, this guy could very easily cost you money.  He is highly likely to have a history of drug use.  He could fail to show up on the day you have no one else; or he could steal from you; or he could fake an injury.  This guy needs to find someone willing to take those very real risks.  And that means being given the right to sell his labor cheaply enough to induce someone to do it.

This is exactly the guy who needs a way to find an exit out of his current poverty trap.  He needs to get started now in order to have any hope of moving up over time.  Now, how is raising the minimum wage going to help him?  It's just a fantasy to think that guys like this are suddenly going to make $10 or more per hour because the government has decreed that to be the wage that must be paid.   Such a decree will only keep this guy from ever getting on the first rung of the ladder.  The last thing that an owner of a bodega or a delivery service is going to risk is a Department of Labor investigation over minimum wage violations.  Just an investigation would quickly put such a business under.  The higher you raise the minimum wage, the more certain you make it that this guy is condemned to continuing his life of begging on the subways or the equivalent.  Drug dealing, anyone?

Meanwhile, the guy is getting plenty of other "help" from our City's many well-intentioned "helpers."  He admitted in the monologue to having received foster care and homeless shelter services.  Of course, those things came with "abuse" (he didn't say whether physical, psychological, sexual, or other; maybe all of the above).  And since he did not appear emaciated and was clearly together enough to ask for what he can have for the asking, it's hard to imagine that he does not receive food stamps and Medicaid.  Although he didn't put it in these words, the real takeaway of his monologue was that all those things just add up to a trap that leaves him abused and with begging on the subways as his best option to get any money to actually spend.

Of course, we are in the process of doubling down on the suite of policies that got this guy into his spot.