Living Wage Action Coalition

Overview | What's a Living Wage? | Common Questions & Arguments | Anti-Oppression
Flyers, chants & more!
| Start a campaign | Demands, proposals & policies | Links | For Facilitators

Answering Arguments against the Living Wage

The following are some common misunderstandings and arguments we've heard regarding campus living wage campaigns. Please contact us to suggest more questions & answers, or any other changes to this page!

1. Workers on campus earn what they’re worth. The market determines the value of their labor, and disrupting that balance will result in job loss and unemployment. We’re talking about a system of scarcity and limited resources. You were in my macro class, weren’t you? A minimum wage job is better than no job, right?

The minimum wage, or the low wage earned by campus workers, is not determined by market forces. The lowest income bracket has been getting steadily poorer and the real value of the minimum wage has steadily declined since 1968 (see note 1). All this has been occurring despite increasing productivity in US workplaces. Low wage workers live in extreme poverty, and cannot afford decent housing, nutritional intake, health care or basic necessities for them or their families. This is not a question of abstract market theory; this is about real people who work two and three jobs just to scrape by. Working families should not live in poverty.

The situation for low wage workers is still getting worse. Facts courtesy of the Economic Policy Insitute (see note 2):
Wages for the lowest-paid 10% of workers fell 9.3% between 1979 and 1999. The number of jobs in which wages were below what a worker would need to support a family of four above the poverty line also grew between 1979 and 1999. In 1999, 26.8% of the workforce earned poverty-level wages, an increase from 23.7% in 1979.

Non-unionized Workers have little to no bargaining power in their workplace. Unionized workers have more, but still less when pitted against the market or against a corporation. In order to remedy this power discrepancy, municipalities, firms and universities must set a decent wage floor, thus insuring that employees earn enough to cover basic needs at the very minimum.

This is an issue of prioritization of university funds; were service workers important to university administrations, the funds would be made available for them to earn enough to afford a life out of poverty.

The myth of higher wages leading to higher unemployment has been thoroughly debunked by several economists. See the important study by David Card and Alan Krueger on Pennsylvania and New Jersey fast food restaurants proving that a minimum wage increase had no effect on employment rates (see note 3).

1. see Economic Policy Institute data at
2. from
3. see

[back to top]

2. People need to start from the bottom and work their way up. That’s the American way. If they’re stuck in a low-wage job, it’s their own fault, because if they were driven enough they’d go school, learn English and work their way to a better job. Giving them handouts just makes them lazy. Other immigrant groups have come here and made it. I mean, my European ancestors were immigrants, too, and look where we are today!

The poverty of low-wage workers is inexcusable. Because it is impossible to survive on the average wage of a service worker, workers are forced to take two or three jobs. For workers who work upwards of 80 hours a week, most anything outside of their jobs, sleeping and eating is impossible. They work very, very hard and many have dependents on their wages here and in home countries. Were workers able to maintain a decent standard of living on the wages of one job (in other words, if they were to make a living wage) not only could time be made for family members, but, were they inclined, workers would have time for technical, linguistic or academic coursework, have time to participate in political campaigns or union activities, or devote time to either improving their workplace or looking for a different job.

A living wage is not a handout. By earning a living wage workers, in fact, are no longer dependent on government poverty programs. A living wage guarantees decent pay for decent work which is, if anything, part of the “American dream” to work free from exploitation. In order to enable workers to empower themselves, they need to be organized into a bargaining unit. Unions provide workers an avenue to express and remedy grievances with their employers.

To assume that anyone can “make it” if they work hard enough ignores structural oppressions faced by most low-wage workers. Workers face any combination of discrimination based on their race, gender, sexuality, age, class, a disability or linguistic barrier. Individual exceptions of financial success despite the institutions that discriminate against them do not erase systematic discrimination and oppression. Similarly, to equate the Euro-American experience to that of recent immigrants of color ignores the systematic privileging of whites in this country over people of color.

[back to top]

3. The living wage discriminates against the real poor. By setting aside the amount of money a living wage would cost we’re using up funds that could be used to help those even more impoverished. Instead of dumping cash on workers who are clearly surviving, we are morally obligated to send the money to starving kids in Africa or to homeless shelters and food pantries in the city. These are the people who really need our charity.

A living wage is not charity! It is the obligation of our communities and universities to pay workers a decent wage. The fact that service workers live in poverty is unjust; full-time jobs should afford workers their basic needs. Declining wages is an endemic problem in the U.S., and it is employers’ place as well as the government’s to stop the downward trend that results in more families living in poverty every year. Poverty wages are exploitative because workers have little to no say in their rate of pay. They are forced to work several low-paying jobs just to survive. Among other risks, families in poverty have little to no access to health care, thus resulting in minor health problems becoming serious, debilitating and even fatal without treatment.

[back to top]

4. My mother works for minimum wage. Are you saying it’s not good enough? That we live in poverty? (or) When my grandparents came to this country they had nothing. They worked in factories for pennies an hour, and now look where my family is. Nobody handed them any $13 an hour. These people just need to work harder to get ahead.

It’s unfortunate that anyone is forced to work for minimum wage. Poverty wages are a national problem, and we need to work together to raise the wage floor. If we were in your hometown, we’d work in solidarity with low-wage workers there to implement a living wage. Do you think minimum wage workers earn what they deserve? Should full-time workers be forced to live below the already artificially low federal poverty line?

-- see also: response to question 2 --

[back to top]

5. Paying a living wage will put the workers you’re trying to help out of a job. Here you are running around naively and idealistically ranting about higher wages, when you don’t realize how much harm you’ll actually cause. Because we’ll be paying higher wages, the jobs will attract a higher quality worker (read: better educated, higher economic class, different race). The workers who have the jobs now will be displaced and out of a job. We need these low-wage jobs to guarantee low-skilled workers something.

Though displacement is often used as an argument against living wage implementation, there is no documentation of its occurring as a result of living wage policies or ordinances. It is pure and groundless speculation. The issue is that compensation for these jobs is unacceptable. Entry-level jobs should not mean poverty wages!

More importantly, universities do not operate as a totally open, free-market system. So, even if the displacement argument wasn't false in society in general, it would still be absolutely irrelevant to a university setting. In our living wage policies we can guarantee job security so that current campus workers don't lose their jobs during implementation. In our policies we can also set up a system to monitor hiring trends and ensure that the company doesn't implement hiring practices that are racist or classist.

[back to top]

6. Paying a living wage is going to cost a fortune. You’re not telling the whole truth about the extent of the financial impact of this. Not only will we need to raise workers’ wages, but we’ll have to raise their managers’ and supervisors’ accordingly in order to maintain the income ratios and avoid wage compression. We can’t afford all that.

Wage compression can be a possible factor of the overall cost of a living wage policy if employers choose to maintain similar wage ratios. This cost can be easily calculated with the proper data and can be taken into account. This does not, however, relieve employers of their obligation to pay a living wage to their employees. Wages they pay employees who earn more than a living wage is their prerogative. Firms affected by living wage policies and ordinances have repeatedly found ways to absorb the costs of higher hourly wages (see note below), and they sometimes must in order to cease paying poverty wages.

Wage ratios have been included in municipal living wage policies in order to ensure that the highest salary is not excessively greater than the lowest. This is an example of redistributing profit more equitably among all wage and salary earners.

Note: For example, see "Taking the Higher Road"

[back to top]

7. Workers choose to work here. If they weren’t making enough money, they could just quit and get a better job. There are points when someone is willing to work for even below minimum wage, or for free. We pay the present hourly wage because the market bears it. I mean, there are hundreds of people who would take their job if it isn’t good enough for them.

To say workers “choose” to work low-wage jobs exaggerates and misrepresents their actual choices. Many workers hold two or three jobs because they do not have access to higher paying entry-level jobs, or because those jobs do not exist. A choice between poverty, abject poverty, and not surviving is not a choice. To call it a choice is to mystify an exploitative market and blame the worker herself rather than isolate the root of the problem: poverty wages.

Workers who earn what they deserve and what they need to afford basic living costs can take pride in their work and living standard. They can live without welfare or other government poverty programs. They can support a family. This most basic security must become the baseline of our society.

[back to top]

8. If the cost of living in this city is so expensive, why don’t they move somewhere else? They could live outside the city and commute. Even our professors can’t live in the city; most have to live further away and drive into work. How can the university be expected to pay our janitors enough to live in the city not even professors can afford?

Many low wage workers already commute hours to work every day. A living wage would enable workers to choose to live a reasonable distance from their place of work. Everyone should have access to affordable housing (1/3 of their income) in the city of their employment.

Professors can in fact afford to live in the cities of their universities, but often not to their desired standard. They choose to commute in order to be able to afford a bigger house, more space, etc. Low wage workers do not have the luxury of this choice, and instead are often forced to live in substandard housing hours from their workplaces.

[back to top]

9. If we pay a living wage our tuition is going to skyrocket. Students are going into debt for their education and you’re expecting them to pay even more? This campaign is insensitive and classist.

Funding for a living wage policy does not need to come from tuition. Universities prioritize funding, and unless they prioritize funding for a living wage for all staff, their budget is exploitative and unjust. University administrations have the power in determining salaries and wage scales, where workers have none, and therefore their needs are ignored and forgotten. The president’s salary, new buildings or projects, for example, come before staff in nearly every case. Universities must reallocate funds. How much, for example, does the president make? How much did the university spend on the last building project? Universities raise money for projects they deem more important than staff, such as new buildings or programs, and could just the same raise money for.

While students and workers cannot necessarily provide the minute budgetary details to how this may be accomplished, as universities employ experts in their finance and budget departments well equipped for this, we can demand it do what is right and cease exploiting its unjust power over staff by paying poverty wages.

[back to top]

10. The fact that this wage is based on a family of four [for example] is totally arbitrary. Some of the people I see around here look 19 years old. Why don’t we just pay people varying wages according to how big their families are?

A family of four is an average. In reality low wage earners have more complicated networks of family and dependents. Most recent immigrant low wage workers send remittances to family’s abroad, and many workers support partners, other relatives, more than two children or elderly parents. Some live alone without dependents. Some are single mothers or fathers, or are teenagers contributing to their family’s income. Thus, the guideline of a family of four is a meeting point for the varying networks of dependents on the income of a low wage worker.

[back to top]

11. This city (or a nearby city) already has a living wage ordinance, and it’s a lot lower than what you’re campaigning for. School should pay the prevailing living wage. I have a lot more faith in the wage determined by the city than by a bunch of sign-waving radical kids who haven’t taken an economics class in their lives.

Municipal living wage ordinances are often the result of political bargaining rather than cost-of-living calculations. Ordinances are also often based on the desperately out-dated federal poverty line (see "What's wrong with how the government calculates poverty?" for more info on the federal poverty line). A university should pay what it actually costs its staff to afford a decent living standard.

[back to top]

12. Instead of paying a living wage we should offer classes and programs to help folks get ahead. We could have money-management courses to teach people how to find bargains, save on taxes, and eat for as little as possible. We could have English as a Second Language classes and give them free access to the library. Other schools offer technology skills classes.

Universities can and should offer these resources to their staff. Class and library access, however, do not make up for poverty wages. A living wage is an employment baseline. Non-wage benefits are crucial to a just workplace, and several must be implemented along with a living wage. See "Living Wage 101: Non-wage Benefits", or visit American Rights at Work for more info.

[back to top]

Please contact us to suggest more questions & answers, or any other changes to this page!

Home | Search | Sitemap | Contact Us
Feel free to reproduce, modify, and distribute any information on this website.