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Walk in their shoes


economic-forecast-headerColumn by Roger Smith

I’m a CEO with a GED, and I have walked in the shoes of a minimum wage worker. I know from experience that it’s a tougher road today.

The minimum wage buys fewer necessities now than it did when I needed it to survive. And as a successful capitalist, it pains me to see that the American Dream, which so inspired me, is increasingly out of reach.

As a young boy, I knew all too well the despair of empty pockets. I learned to be resourceful, making money by selling my most precious possessions. The sound of change in my pocket gave me hope.

From ages 15 to 18, I was homeless. I did what I had to do to survive and put money in my pocket. I worked under the table as a day laborer, toiled in pool halls, bussed tables and worked a variety of minimum-wage jobs.

I saw the minimum wage as a temporary entry wage. I believed that if I worked hard and played by the rules, I’d eventually get ahead. The scales weren’t as tipped against workers as they are today.

It was a time in America when a homeless kid with a GED could still find opportunities and a path to living the American Dream. It was a time in America, when millions were rising into the middle class, not falling out of it.

My path to living the American Dream has been through a 37-year career with American Income Life. I started as a life insurance agent and worked my way up to my current position as CEO.

Our company culture remains one of creating shared prosperity and providing opportunity unlimited. We are proof that businesses can profit and grow by paying a fair wage and providing a pathway to the American Dream for employees.

For me and so many others of my generation, the minimum wage was just the first of many rungs on a career ladder. But too many workers today find themselves running in place on a treadmill — stuck in low-wage jobs without real opportunity.

Today’s federal minimum wage has less buying power than it did when I was a homeless teen in the 1960s.

The minimum wage hit its high point in value around the time I most needed it. At its peak in 1968, the minimum wage was worth $10.96, adjusted for inflation. That’s way more than today’s federal minimum wage — stuck at $7.25 since 2009.

The $3.71 difference between the minimum wage in 1968 and today isn’t pocket change. It adds up to $7,717 over the course of a year for full-time workers.

For millions of Americans, the minimum wage is no longer a temporary entry-level wage, but a longtime wage that locks them and their families into poverty and undermines the consumer demand that drives our economy.

Raising the minimum wage makes good economic sense. Many business leaders want to see it increased.

As a successful CEO, I was not surprised to see a recent national poll released by the American Sustainable Business Council and Business for a Fair Minimum Wage. It found that 61 percent of small-business owners with employees favor raising the minimum wage to $10.10 and then adjusting it annually to keep pace with the cost of living.

Business owners see the practical effects of raising the minimum wage. As consumers, workers with money in their pockets provide a boost to sales at Main Street businesses. A higher wage also positively affects internal functions like employee retention, employee morale and quality of service provided to customers.

Raising the minimum wage makes good economic sense, but it’s much more than that.

You cannot have a strong economy or fulfill the promise of the American Dream when most Americans are running in place or falling behind while the richest Americans pull further away from the rest.

Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour would benefit 28 million workers with an average age of 35 years old. Many of them have more formal education than me.

Raising the minimum wage is a crucial first step to restoring the shattered American Dream. The same American Dream that gave a homeless kid with a GED a chance to succeed.

David Smith is president and CEO of American Income Life Insurance Company. This article previously appeared in The Hill.



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