ONE OF THE more disquieting things said about the efforts to promote a living wage is that boosting the pay of low-skilled workers from the $4.25 minimum wage to $5 or $6 or $7 an hour would force the marketplace to pay more than these workers are worth.
This is a sad commentary, especially in a country where the average annual compensation for a chief executive of a major corporation increased by 23 percent last year to $4.37 million.Is it possible that these CEOs really are worth an average of $4 million-plus but a cafeteria worker does not deserve $6 an hour? I do not think so. But the marketplace appears ready to tolerate excess at the high end while remaining impossibly stingy at the low end.
The income gap between the no- or low-skilled workers and those at the top will grow as the job structure of this country begins to settle itself after all of the downsizing. That is obvious from several recent economic reports, even though those reports are not necessarily emphasizing that angle.
Politicians and business executives are more eager to concentrate on the good news from these job reports. And that is: While a lot of jobs are being lost, many more are being created, a good number of which pay above average.
Last month, the White House issued a report by its Council of Economic Advisers that said more than two-thirds of the 8.4 million new jobs created in the United States during the last four years paid better than the median salary of $25,428. The National Association of Manufacturers also said opportunity is being created for workers.
That all sounds good. But consider the second part of the message: Better jobs are being created for skilled workers. So, what about the unskilled ones, the ones whose worth does not lift them above the minimum wage?
"There is a real danger that as training and investment continue to flow principally to the already educated, the already trained, (that) this in itself can be destabilizing and will promote even greater inequality," said Frank Doyle, a retired executive vice president for General Electric. He chaired the panel that put together the report issued by the Committee for Economic Development.
That report presented an upbeat look at the workplace, saying that perhaps all of the worker unease has been exaggerated. But it also said that "the American economy is offering fewer and fewer high-paying jobs and grim long-term prospects for the less skilled."
The solution to these grim prospects needs to begin before workers are out there trying to make a living without skills. Educational systems need to redesign the way they handle students who do not have the ability or desire to attend college. Students should not leave high school without some sort of preparation for the work world. They should have some skill to enable them to earn a living wage, not just a salary.
Companies should rise to the challenge of upgrading their workers' skills. While their first obligation is to stay in business, another one high on the list should be to foster and protect the human assets they have.