Economy Boosting Jobs + Raising Minimum Wage

Communicating to Increase the Minimum Wage

Efforts to build support for increasing the minimum wage have had several recent successes, leading to new state and local policies across the country. Now the federal debate over increasing the national minimum is heating up. This is an opportune moment to make significant gains for workers and communities, and our whole economy, if we can understand and promote the perspectives that lead to policy wins.

To take this conversation to the next level, and create momentum for change, we need a story that clarifies for people why raising the minimum wage is good for all of us. Fortunately, we have that story.

Our research finds that we can succeed by having a conversation that avoids the current dynamic that pits business against workers. We need a conversation that is focused not on what businesses need, or on what individuals need, but on what all of us and our economy need.

To create a new common sense on the issue, we need to connect the decisions businesses make with the consequences for all of us – workers, families, communities, and our economy.

The most effective organizing idea for this new conversation is that we simply can’t sustain our economy or our communities, with jobs that fail to compensate adequately. These economy-busting jobs are stalling our economy and our communities. Increasing the minimum wage boosts communities and the overall economy by providing more Americans with income to spend on the basics.

A variety of points help to support and flesh out this core idea.

  • It helps to draw a distinction between “economy-boosting” and “economy-busting” jobs – clear and memorable terms that help people focus on the core issue.
  • “Affording the basics” means spending on things like food, doctor visits, or necessary repairs; using these words and others clarifies for people exactly how little some jobs are paying.
  • The solution is to “lift the wage and benefits floor” – a simple and vivid image that helps people quickly grasp the policy solution.
  • Explaining what prevents better compensation is also helpful. The idea that “profitable corporations are using their power and influence to hold down compensation” helps people see the current state of affairs as intentional, not unavoidable.
  • When appropriate, it is helpful to explain to people that the minimum wage is so low, that many people with full-time jobs qualify for food stamps and other public assistance. This comparison powerfully illustrates what it really means to be working and poor.
  • People don’t blame the worker; they turn their anger toward the employer, and the policy that allows it to happen.
  • Finally, including a role for citizens in the conversation reinforces intentionality: we have the power to create the economy and quality of life we want.

Here’s just one example of language that helps shift people’s perspectives:

Economists sometimes talk about the need for economy-boosting jobs. These are jobs where people make enough money to maintain the basic spending levels that keep the economy and communities going. If people can’t spend on basics like food, repairs, and so on, the economy stalls. 

And here’s an example that brings in even more of the points:

Our government has a specific role when it comes to the job market: to maintain a “wage and benefits floor.” Powerful corporations actively use their influence to hold down wages and benefits, but if jobs don’t compensate enough to maintain “Basic Spending” levels – on things like food, getting things repaired, and so on, the economy stalls. Wages are so low that millions of full time workers are below the poverty line and qualify for food stamps. Policies to raise the wage and benefits floor and restore basic spending will boost the economy. For example, to regain our prosperity, people can insist on increasing the minimum wage.

Why does this approach have such power?

First, it’s simple. It clarifies the economic problem. Instead of wallowing in an overwhelming array of economic worries including unemployment, a roller coaster stock market, inequality, deficits, and so on, it offers a simple picture of an economic dynamic we can understand and do something about.

More broadly, it provides a new explanation for how the economy really works. The economy we care about is the one that affects people’s wallets, and it is whether jobs make it possible for people to support their families that drives the economy. This idea ties the fate of low-wage workers to the fate of us all. When they hear that a higher floor lifts families, as well as communities and our economy, people can readily see how policies like increasing the minimum wage and guaranteeing paid sick time will improve quality of life and economic circumstances for us all. It sets the stage for a conversation about inequality and distribution of wealth, by clearly illustrating why we’re all better off when those with less, have more.

Finally, this conversation is a very values-based conversation. It taps into beliefs about how work should be valued and how people with jobs should be able to support themselves and their families. And it reinforces interdependence – we sink or swim together.

We need every ally to rally around these culture-shifting ideas and proactively push them into public discourse. Culture change doesn’t happen by accident; it happens when a catalyst sparks new thinking, which advocates can encourage.

As a basic approach for organizing our communications, the idea that we can’t sustain our communities and the economy on low-wage jobs is a simple, common sense explanation of why job quality policies matter to us all. Most important, it is a big idea that accomplishes a number of important goals:

  • It brings new supporters to the cause with a helpful new perspective that competes with the idea that businesses can’t afford to do more.
  • For those who are already sympathetic, it provides practical as well as humanitarian reasons to make the case.
  • Finally, it offers everyone a clear and memorable way to summarize why the issue matters. With a topic as complex as jobs and the economy, this is critical.

About the Research

Policy campaigns are often won (or lost) because of the underlying assumptions and understandings that people bring to the debate in the first place.

When it comes to jobs, there are fundamental, core beliefs people hold that set the foundation for campaigns and legislative battles. These include ideas about work, about the relationship between employers and employees, about what society and government can expect from either one, and so on.

The Ford Foundation asked Topos to research those core beliefs that make it hard for the public to understand the policy solutions that will work and help the cause. Topos spent a year conducting this research, talking with hundreds of people around the country to unearth the hidden obstacles to public support on job quality policies like minimum wage, and to develop a core organizing idea that could overcome these obstacles.

Topos conducted anthropological research in coffee shops, parks, people’s homes and place of work; virtual community forums where people debated ideas online; and conducted talkback tests, where we exposed individual participants to a single idea to determine what sticks and what changes people’s thinking about job policies.

The recommendations above are what we learned from these months of research.

Why previous arguments have fallen short

While we face many obstacles in this conversation, there are some fundamental ideas in public discourse that clearly prevent progress.

When it comes to job policies, people unfortunately often default to viewing the world through the eyes of employers

First, we face a major barrier when the public conversation on jobs is focused primarily on “what business needs”, which is a default way of thinking about minimum wage increases.

Average Americans, whatever their occupation or political orientation, often look at issues from the perspective of an owner trying to maintain a profitable business. When thinking in this way, they make a number of assumptions that undermine our policy goals.

Here’s how people default to thinking about job policy.

From a business perspective, employee compensation is a cost, a burden to business. Any increase in wages, or expansion of work standards such as sick leave, creates an additional strain on business that might harm profitability and even lead to cutbacks or failure.

And if businesses are the source of jobs, it then follows that an employer’s need should trump an employee’s need, because if the employer can’t afford to hire, there are no jobs.

Finally, business executives, as the most knowledgeable about what business needs, are taken as the authority on this topic.

The result is that even people who are sympathetic to workers’ interests often feel there is no choice but to give business what they want. This frame, advanced by the opposition, and readily embraced by most Americans, is a powerful, common sense idea — and therefore a powerful obstacle that advocates must find a way to diminish.

After the situation has been reframed in terms of basic spending and economy-boosting jobs, however, the problem for businesses is no longer that their wages are too high, but rather that demand is too low, because too many low-wage, economy-busting jobs mean fewer customers.

Other patterns of thinking are equally entrenched and unhelpful to promoting a more progressive conversation. For example, one very common pattern is to focus on what individuals need.

Focusing on struggling individuals and families creates different barriers

When looking at these issues through the perspective of an individual, people think about the ways in which each of us has to navigate the work world, and they don’t consider ways to change the work world. The lens on the individual obscures the broader systemic issues, and the collective solutions.

Furthermore, when focused on the individual, it is quite logical to view the issue this way.

Not all jobs can be great jobs.

Everyone starts out at the entry-level, and has to move up in the work world. It is inevitable that there will be a hierarchy of jobs.

If a person is unsuccessful in the work world it is due to bad choices or a character flaw.

The apparent solution, in this way of thinking, is for each individual to get the education to be able to advance. While progressives of course support increased opportunities for education, we also want to lift all jobs, and reject the notion that some jobs need to pay poverty level compensation.

Finally, though people recognize that economic conditions matter, a whole range of anti-poor stereotypes continue to persist. That is why it is relatively easy to trigger the idea that if a person is unsuccessful in the work world it is due to bad choices or a character flaw.

On the other hand, a businessperson can be a very compelling authority on the role of increased wages in boosting demand at small business. This is a far more effective approach than having a business person talk about how higher wages can help retain good employees (which people assume a smart business person would do anyway).

These themes allow advocates for increasing minimum wage to play offense for a change, insisting that these policies will boost our economy, instead of the defensive stance we so often have on these issues that it won’t “hurt business”. (When we raise this issue, we’re stuck fighting our way out of the opponent’s frame on minimum wage, not a place where we get much traction. Even when we offer new data and research, people tend to ignore us because they’ve already reached a conclusion about the minimum wage increases from a business operator’s perspective.)

In conclusion, the idea that we can’t sustain our communities and the economy on low-wage jobs is a simple, common sense explanation of why job quality policies matter to us all. Most important, as way of organizing our communications on minimum wage research and policy, it is an idea that accomplishes a number of important goals:

  • It brings new supporters to the cause with a helpful new perspective that competes with the idea that businesses can’t afford to do more.
  • For those who are already sympathetic, it provides practical as well as humanitarian reasons to make the case.
  • Finally, it offers everyone a clear and memorable way to summarize why the issue matters. With a topic as complex as jobs and the economy, this is critical.
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