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A Higher Minimum Wage? Catholics Should Know Better

A Higher Minimum Wage Catholics Should Know Better Propaganda Times

Propaganda Times

Stephen Herreid - published on 01/16/14

The dark, eugenic history behind the minimum wage

Since the recent 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of “War on Poverty,” there’s been a renewed discussion of “what to do about the poor” in America. Much of the commentary is business as usual: folks on the right have taken the opportunity to attack welfare, to the horror of some on the left, who solemnly respond with the traditional liberal view that treats tax money as no object and the poor as objects of unfathomable, if impersonal, collective and politically advantageous pity (in the form of funds). As I clicked through the headlines, I was eager to find a strong Christian response to the plight of the impoverished. With the cry of the poor so much in the public ear, what would Christian leaders have to offer as witnesses to Christ?

My heart sank when I came across two particular news items: First, Catholic Charities USA and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, represented by Father Larry Snyder and Archbishop Thomas Wenski respectively, made another appeal to the Senate to raise the federal minimum wage. Second, Catholic Charities USA also “brought together a host of other organizations, including Feeding America, Save the Children, the Salvation Army, the National Alliance to End Homelessness, Lutheran Services in America, United Way and the Alliance for Children and Families,” more or less to advocate for more aggressive federal welfare intervention to alleviate poverty. I say my heart sank, but it would be more accurate to say a chill went up my spine. After all, nothing could be more chilly than the welfare state envisioned by the minimum wage’s founding fathers: the eugenicists of the Progressive Era.

Eugenics devalues the human person and treats the most vulnerable among us like cogs in a statist machine programmed for “the good” as conceived in the cold minds of specialists and enacted by a vast state bureaucracy. Many Catholics know of eugenics in its exported, Nazi form. We know its influence on the thought of Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood. Some of us may even know of the tens of thousands of racially and mentally “inferior” Americans who were sterilized by force from the progressive 20s through the 70s. And of course, we all know that eugenics is irreconcilable with our faith. But there are two other important facts that Catholics should also know: in the early 20th century, one of the chief eugenic methods for excluding “inferiors” from healthy, white society was by enacting legal minimum wages too high for most of the poor to earn. Second, once these “undesirables” were removed from the workforce, the “State” was meant to “deal with” them separately as a “special class” in the welfare system.

Influenced by the venerated scientific theory of Charles Darwin, early American progressives sought to apply the logic of animal husbandry to the human family. One of the first steps in the progressive plan was to create a purer, whiter economy by outlawing the wages that “low-wage races” were willing to accept on their way up the job-ladder. The existing context of free competition, which was more or less to the advantage of the poor, was a threat to the progressive agenda. “The competition has no respect for the superior races,” said University of Wisconsin economist John R. Commons in 1907. “The race with lowest necessities displaces others.”

Commons and other progressives determined wage by race, insisting that non-Anglos required less pay simply because they were inferior beings. Lower forms of life have lower necessities of life. The real reason why low-wage earners seemed to have fewer necessities was often that they were wise stewards of what they had. They were poor, and they had learned how to manage their lives in such a way as to ensure a better future for themselves. Indeed, African American scholar Anthony Bradley recently wrote about “the existence of thriving black-owned businesses during that era, a fact of which many are unaware … black families epitomized a culture of saving, even more so than white families.”

Rather than treat the poor as human persons with just as much right — and ability — to move freely in the market as themselves, progressives insisted on state controls that would first exclude the poor from work, and then “deal with” them as a separate, “unemployable” class. With the creation of high enough minimum wage laws, the bottom rung of the economic ladder could be sawed off, leaving those already at an advantage free to climb without competition from beneath. Writes Princeton’s Dr. Thomas C. Leonard, “[L]eading progressives campaigned for labor reform while also maintaining that restrictive labor laws, such as legal minimum wages, would disemploy poor workers.” These labor reform leaders fully understood, and fully intended, that those who would suffer the most from minimum wage laws were the very same groups that the eugenic agenda was most anxious to control. “The labor legislation they pioneered was, in important respects, designed to exclude immigrants, women, and African Americans,” write Dr. Leonard and his colleague, Dr. David Bernstein of the George Mason University School of Law.

In fact, the wage provisions of the progressive era did succeed, and unfortunately still do, in removing vast swathes of the poor from the working-class, especially Hispanics and blacks. While many of today’s progressives have been fooled into thinking that these are the very people who would be helped by raising the minimum wage, the law was originally designed for explicitly dehumanizing and racist ends. Dr. Leonard observes that “legal minimum wages and other statutory means of inducing undesirable groups to leave the labor force were, in the progressive view, a eugenic benefit.”

The fact that a high minimum wage hurts the poor, especially certain ethnic groups among the poor, is not only apparent today, but was intended by its original authors. From the beginning, the high minimum wage has been a weapon against, not a medicine for the marginalized poor.

Raising the minimum wage today would have the same effect on today’s job market as it had on the markets in which it was originally produced. Advocates of the raise insist that it will help those who are earning the least. In fact, only some 3 percent of workers are currently on the minimum wage, and some number of that 3 percent would be let go if employers were ordered to pay them more. (It’s simple for those of us who were home-schooled: if you’ve got $10 to pay to five employees per week, you can give them each $2 a week. If the government orders you to start paying each employee five dollars a week, what can you do?) Nonetheless, as Hope Yen wrote at The Huffington Post last year, “the count of America’s poor remains stuck at a record number: 46.2 million, or 15 percent of the population, due in part to lingering high unemployment following the recession,” and “poverty rates for blacks and Hispanics are nearly three times higher….” Many poor and unemployed Americans are young people who can’t even get their first job at the current minimum wage rate, while others are the children and even grandchildren of welfare dependents who suffered from the same problem with the minimums of previous decades. When they had trouble finding and keeping their first jobs, they were shuffled into welfare programs for “delinquents.”

You see, even in the progressive era, the minimum wage served the additional purpose of earmarking those who were considered “unemployable.” “For progressives,” writes Leonard, “a legal minimum wage had the useful property of sorting the unfit, who would lose their jobs, from the deserving workers, who would retain their jobs.” One advocate of the minimum wage, Felix Frankfurter, supported a legal minimum wage in Oregon on grounds that “the state … may use means, like the present statute, of sorting the normal self-supporting workers the unemployables and then deal with the latter appropriately as a special class.”

This sentiment signals the relationship between the eugenicist progressive agenda and the welfare state. Indeed, Leonard observes that it was only with the arrival of a powerful state, willing to heavily interfere in society, that eugenics was able to enter into the mainstream of public discourse. While “Eugenic ideas were not new in the Progressive Era,” writes Leonard, “…expansion of state power meant that it became possible to have not only eugenic thought, but also eugenic practice.” He quotes eugenics historian Diane Paul, who wrote that “eugenics legislation had to await ‘the rise of the welfare state.’”

In the early 20th century, the “undesirables” who were forced to leave the now-illegal low-wage jobs that would have been their ticket out of poverty were meant to either go hungry or land in the welfare system, where they were supposed to get the picture, stop reproducing, and eventually die out. One leading progressive economist, Henry Rogers Seager of Columbia University, put it plainly in 1913: “…we must courageously cut off lines of heredity that have been proved to be undesirable by isolation or sterilization . . . .” Likewise Royal Meeker, a Princeton economist and fervent defender of a high minimum wage: “Better that the state should support the inefficient wholly and prevent the multiplication of the breed than subsidize incompetence and unthrift, enabling them to bring forth more of their kind.”

The welfare system designed in the progressive era still exists, and continues to manage the lives of the most vulnerable among us. When non-whites, immigrants, and the mentally ill continued living and “breeding” despite the efforts of progressive social scientists (see forced sterilizations), the welfare state had to grow beyond to “take care of the poor.” What progressives failed to account for is the human person, who acts more from the heart than in obedience to top-down orders from the state. And so instead of creating the perfect future they intended, progressives created the permanently dependent underclass we still have with us today.

Despite all the machinations of leftover eugenic policy in the welfare state (for example, its continued success in killing almost half of African-American babies conceived per year), the poor, downtrodden “undesirables” keep on kicking. As Catholics, we must not fall into the trap of progressive dehumanization of the poor. We should strive to see in the poor the dignified image of Christ, and not, as Kevin Williamson recently wrote at the National Review, “see the bottom half, and maybe even the bottom 80 percent, of citizens as passive participants in economic life, not people who do things but people to whom things are done.” Treating the poor as subhuman objects to be “dealt with” by “society” does not make them stop behaving like humans — not in lock-step with neat top-down plans — and however much the state succeeds in ghettoizing the poor into huddled masses, it will never stop them yearning, somewhere deep within their hearts, to be free.

Stephen Herreid is currently a Fellow at the John Jay Institute (Philadelphia) and the arts editor for Humane Pursuits. He has been a Contributing Editor to The Intercollegiate Review Online and has contributed several chapters to the latest edition of ISI’s Choosing the Right College.

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