Have you ever seen the sun from far away? Try not to think too hard about this one, because, if you’ve gotten much closer than 93 million miles, you’re probably an astronaut. But down here where all us normal folk live, from this speck of green and blue, the sun looks like a floating 2-D circle of light. This experience of living next to a star reveals something really crucial about perception: the sun is not a 2-D ball of light (in case you were confused).
No matter how many photographs may claim merit to the idea that our sun is not a three dimensional ball of violently exploding gases, but rather, a glowing circle of orange light, it simply won’t be true. And, it’s not true—thank goodness.
What is true is that perception packs a pretty heavy punch in that medicinal and metaphoric drink called “reality”. The context surrounding a particular event are almost as—if not more important than—the event itself. There’s a world of difference between winning $10,000 on an instant scratch-off ticket, and waiting for grandma to flatline just past her prime. On the surface the payday is the same, but missing out on grandma’s famous meatballs for the remainder of your life can be terribly haunting.
“When people see me working at a coffee shop, they assume I’m a single mom, broke, just a waste of life.”
There was a frustration in her voice that undoubtably echoed the same feelings of millions of Americans across the country. This wasn’t just about the nominal value of money, of why working full-time at minimum wage meant not having enough the cover food for the month. It wasn’t the complaint of having to work twelve-hour days, six days a week, with barely enough time to sleep or engage with loved ones.
This was something different; it wasn’t the popular message conveyed by the political right and its established media empire, whose tireless efforts strive towards driving home the point that most people are lazy and simply don’t work hard enough.
This girl had a college degree and a lifetime of debt, and yet she wasn’t as concerned about her net worth as she was about her actual worth as a human being—the value of herself as a person in the eyes of those who came into her store for coffee every morning. It wasn’t that her job serving coffee wasn’t a respectable one, it was that others knew it didn’t pay enough to cover the cost of living, believing that she was somehow stealing from them and their tax dollars because she refused to get a better job or go back to school.
And then I wondered: if this girl was every bit the worker and citizen they wanted her to be, who would serve their coffee then?
When you turn on the news or catch wind of a hot political debate concerned with the “freeloading” crisis so obsessively beaten to death by those who have more than enough, you have to ask the right questions to sift through the bias talk:
1.) If people who are working full-time can’t make enough to live, let alone get ahead, what’s their incentive for working full-time?
2.) If people are working full-time but need government benefits to live, why don’t we just raise their pay?
3.) And, if government bodies or the private market refuse to raise the minimum-wage to a rate that can cover the cost of living, why are they surprised that so many people are depending on public assistance? What’s all the fighting for, exactly?
The interesting trick of it all has to to with perception.
The political right will often vilify those who do not earn a livable wage and require public assistance. However, negative perceptions of those who do not earn a livable wage is created by the establishment of a minimum wage that cannot cover the cost of living. Now the conversation becomes:
Political Right: What!? You’re 27!? You need to get out of this crappy job and get a respectable career. You don’t want to be a low-life forever, do you?
Minimum Wage Worker: I actually like my job, but at this rate, it doesn’t cover my basic living costs and I can barely eat. Maybe if you raised the minimum wage I wouldn’t have to use public assistance programs.
Political Right: What!? What do you need public assistance programs for? You already have a job, freeloader! You need to get back to school and get another degree, then you can earn a living wage.
Minimum Wage Worker: Higher education costs tens of thousands of dollars. I make $7.15/hr and I’m using public assistance. How can I pay for school?
Political Right: Take out a loan. All students go into debt.
Minimum Wage Worker: I make $7.15/hr and I don’t own anything, who would give me a loan? Also, I work 60+ hours a week. Where’s the time and energy?
Political Right: Borrow the money from your parents.
Minimum Wage Worker: …They are poor too…
Political Right: …How much is that coffee?
Minimum Wage Worker: Let’s see, two coffees…that’ll be $8.49—more than I make in an hour.
Perception is everything. How we see a person dictates how we treat them, and ultimately the policies that will govern their lives. When we publicly target and vilify populations for shortcomings the system has made unavoidable, the problem almost become unknowable. People can’t see clearly and so they blame the person.
We’ll talk all day long about catching people who steal an extra $100 in food stamps, but forget about banks that stole $800 million under shady business practices, and then showered themselves with bonuses from U.S. tax dollars. That’s Facebook and Google tracking your internet browsing, not Charlie down the road, who shakes his cup on the freeway for six hours a day.
If people knew that the person behind the counter was making a livable wage, their perception would change. There’s more room for respect as the picture of who can work at Starbucks extends beyond current minimum wage stereotypes.
To better illustrate this, imagine that two of your friends worked from home doing similar tasks.
Now imagine that Friend A makes $10,000 a year.
You’re more likely to tell that person to get back to school, want for more, and view their priorities and success as questionable.
Now imagine that Friend B makes $100,000 a year.
You’re more likely to have a higher regard and appreciation for them and a life you imagine to resemble that of a hard working, respectable citizen.
In this way, the cost of a non-livable minimum wage goes deeper than the lifestyle afforded to its earner. There’s a cultural implication about how we treat people and what kind of values and messages we instill in our children. As environment plays a large role in the shaping of a culture and the behavior of its citizens, those factors would be greatly improved by an economic windfall that raises the minimum wage to a respectable living wage.
Equality for all doesn’t mean that everyone gets paid the same, it means that all those who work for their pay have an equal chance at a sustainable, independent life. To deny people the dignity of a livable wage is to deny them their dignity as a person, because as far as perception goes, minimum wage workers aren’t vilified because they make minimum wage—they are vilified because minimum wage is not a living wage.