Posted by: bmeverett | July 30, 2009

Minimum Wage, Maximum Hype


On Friday, July 24, the federal government raised the minimum wage from $6.55 per hour to $7.25. According to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, “This well-deserved increase will help workers better provide for their families in the face of today’s economic challenges.” Today’s economic challenges apparently include the high cost of environmental narcissism, since the Department of Labor press release contains the following mind-blowing statement: “The $120 [additional monthly income] would easily cover the cost of replacing all the light bulbs in a typical home with compact fluorescent light bulbs — which would save the family money in the long term and be an important step toward a greener country.” I will admit to rechecking the source of the press release to make sure it wasn’t from The Onion or some other satirical publication. Nope, it’s your tax dollars at work.
Minimum wage increases are a hot controversy in the US. Proponents like to call such increases raises for our poorest citizens. That’s not really accurate, since the government employs very few minimum wage earners. In reality, the minimum wage is a law that forbids people from selling their labor for less than $7.25 an hour. If you can’t find someone willing to pay you that much, it’s illegal for you to work. When the minimum wage increases, many people do enjoy a higher income. Others, however, either lose their jobs or lose the opportunity to find a job. The problem is not the greed of employers, but the lack of skills of a segment of our population in a complex, modern economy. The solution is higher skills, not higher wages for the unskilled. If Secretary Solis wanted to accompany the minimum wage increase with a constructive message, she should have encouraged minimum wage earners to use their additional income to sharpen their skills or at least the skills of their children.
Instead, Secretary Solis wants minimum wage earners to buy compact fluorescent light bulbs. Even at the new wage rates, a full-time minimum wage earner makes about $15,000 a year. Why in the world would they spend money on high-tech light bulbs? Secretary Solis thinks this would be a good way to save money, since compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) use about one-third of the energy of standard incandescent bulbs. If that were the whole story, why wouldn’t everyone switch? The answer is that light is more than just cost.
If you turn your thermostat down to 60° F in the winter instead of 68° F, you will save money, but you will be cold. Some people don’t mind cooler temperatures and are happy to just wear a sweater. Others (like me) just don’t like the cold and would rather have the heat than the money. Some people actually like CFLs, but these light bulbs have some problems. Many people don’t like the quality of the light, which can be whiter, bluer and harsher than incandescent bulbs. CFLs take longer to warm up, and turning them on and off frequently can reduce their lifespan. Only certain CFLs can be used with dimmer switches.
The sleeper issue for CFLs is mercury. To environmentalists, mercury is a deadly toxin, unacceptable in even small quantities in fish, thermometers and power plant emissions. Yet the release of mercury from a broken CFL is considered perfectly fine. The US Environmental Protection Agency seeks to reassure consumers that “Although CFLs do contain mercury, it is present in trace amounts.” The EPA goes on to say, however, “But if a bulb accidentally breaks, proper clean-up is necessary. The first thing you want to do is to get everyone out of room, including pets.” Feel better?
Perhaps we should at least give Secretary Solid credit for working toward “a greener country.” Let’s look at the numbers. According to the US Department of Energy’s 2001 Residential Energy Survey, US households below the poverty line accounted for 15 million out of the total of 107 million households. Total electricity consumption for the poorest households was estimated at 122 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) per year. Lighting is, on average, 10% of a family’s electricity usage, so CFL’s for poor people are likely to save 8-9 billion kWh per year, approximately 0.2% of total US electricity usage.
Asking the poor to use their limited funds to make a green gesture is an odd request. Habitat for Humanity, a wonderful organization which builds homes for low-income families, has announced that it will add solar units to some of the homes it builds. Why install the most expensive type of energy system on these homes? Wouldn’t it make more sense to build additional, less expensive homes with conventional heating and power systems?
My message to Secretary Solis is simple: “green chic” is for upper middle class New Yorkers, willing to bear the small cost and minor inconvenience of making a purely symbolic political statement. Poor people have better and much more important things to do with their money.

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