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Greg Bell: New minimum-wage laws — Government as provider

Published: Friday, Aug. 15 2014 6:29 a.m. MDT

It’s one thing to conclude that the government owes people a living. It’s quite another for the laws to mandate employers to pay workers what the government has generously decided they ought to have.

Elaine Thompson, Associated Press

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Fast-food workers are staging protests for a minimum wage of $15. An Associated Press article quoted a woman who was forced to move herself and her two daughters into an apartment with two other adults when her hours at McDonald’s were cut from 40 a week to about 24.

“‘I don’t think $15 will make me rich. ... I just want an apartment for my family and be able to have my kids in their own room, to not have to wait for the washing machine or the bathtub, and I don’t want to be behind on bills if I take time off or get sick,’ said the woman, who earns minimum wage after 12 years with the company.”

It’s a compelling story. I sympathize with her desire for financial independence. But does our government — i.e., do we the people — owe her a job at a wage that will make her financially independent?

Historically, Americans were responsible for their own welfare. Each person chose his own educational path, line of work, how to handle credit, discipline in paying bills and whether to marry and have children. If one lived irresponsibly there were consequences.

That all changed with the 1960s' Great Society welfare programs, which have grown into TANF, WIC, food stamps, Medicaid, subsidized day care and subsidized housing. Today, the fourth and fifth generations of some families continue the poverty cycle. Long-term welfare recipients are often deprived of meaningful incentives to become self-reliant and to feel the sense of human dignity, which independence inevitably brings.

Congress might have set eligibility conditions for these programs, such as learning English, working or looking or training for work, being tested for drug use, learning a trade or otherwise getting an education. But not our federal government.

Knowing that being a single teenage mother is the biggest predictor and determinant of long-term poverty, we might counsel more young women about the serious consequences of premarital sex and how they could avoid poverty for themselves and their children through adoption. But not our federal government.

Fortunately, Utah and other states have toughened eligibility standards for many such programs when allowed by federal rules.

Our federal government has opted for a “no-fault” welfare system — the big exception being the hard-won and innovative 1990s “workfare” program, which the Obama administration has essentially “waived.” Blind to how people respond to incentives, congressional and administration liberals don’t want bad personal choices to affect benefits. Thus, it's no surprise that the fast-food worker in Chicago expects government to guarantee her an apartment. Our Great Society government has taken on tens of millions of long-term wards. Why wouldn’t that same generous government ensure her a wage of $15 per hour?

However, even exceeding the perversity of welfare-state philosophy, there’s a pernicious doctrine at work in our current minimum-wage discussion. You and I fund Great Society welfare programs with our tax dollars. The workers pay for the nonworkers. Classic redistribution of wealth.

But hiking the minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 would move us into the realm of confiscatory government. Why go to the bother and political unpleasantness of raising taxes to fund welfare programs when lawmakers can make employers double the minimum wage by fiat? Without increasing taxes, government cleverly shifts the burden to private business to pay workers wages sufficient to have their own apartments.

Of course, advocates for higher minimum wage know fast-food restaurants, hotels, contractors and grocery stores must pass on the cost of the new minimum wage by charging a lot more for hamburgers and hotel rooms. But the bad guy will be McDonald’s, not the IRS. It’s one thing to conclude that the government owes people a living. It’s quite another for the laws to mandate employers to pay workers what the government has generously decided they ought to have.

Greg Bell is the former lieutenant governor of Utah and the current president and CEO of the Utah Hospital Association.

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