My first experience with the minimum wage was in 1972 as a movie usher for the old Century Theater chain on Long Island.

For the privilege of standing on my feet for eight hours, asking patrons whether they preferred “balcony or loge” and having to watch Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” nearly 60 times, I earned the grand total of $1.85 per hour.

The minimum wage and I connected a few more times in the ensuing years before I officially became a salaried employee.

Later, when I covered the restaurant industry for 12 years, you can imagine that calls to raise the minimum wage did not sit well with restaurateurs or their trade group, the National Restaurant Association.

Their position was that it was not a minimum wage, but rather a “starting wage,” with the idea that workers who actually worked would not be at that level forever, and would gradually move up the ranks of the pay scale.

As most of you know by now, the Democrat-controlled 110th Congress has showcased a minimum wage increase as one of the top priorities of their inaugural 100 hours. And the boost, which overwhelmingly passed in a House vote would raise the wage to $7.25 an hour, which affects some 13 million workers. Its future is not as rosy in the Senate, where Republicans have promised a filibuster if tax breaks aren’t included for small businesses.

The Democrats claimed that the wage hasn’t kept pace with inflation, and, if you take my experience for example, it’s risen just $3.30 in just over 34 years. For those of you keeping score at home, that spans seven presidential administrations.

What you probably won’t hear from minimum wage advocates is that a rise in the wage may usher in an influx of illegals getting paid off the books at decidedly lower prices, while many low-skilled U.S. residents may unfortunately be priced out of the workforce.

For now, President Bush appears to be in the Democrats’ corner as he’s pledged to reach across the aisle and support an increase -- provided it includes the small business breaks.

Whether that’s because he truly believes that the wage is long overdue for a boost, or he’s stashing away markers to call in at a later date for, say, a nod toward his Iraq policy, would be pure conjecture at this point.

I received an e-mail the other day referencing a report compiled by a member of the Congressional Budget Office’s tax division, which suggested that one strategy to raise worker wages would be to lower corporate tax rates.

The study found that workers shoulder roughly 70 percent of corporate taxes, while owners and investors carry the nut for the rest.

Somehow, I can’t envision House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid leading the charge for a reduction in corporate taxes even if it might benefit workers in the larger picture.
Regardless, it will be interesting to gauge the changes in the entry-level American worker a few years down the road following the near-certainty of an increase.

You might want to start at your local movie house.

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