I worked a “dirty job.” On my 14th birthday, I cleaned toilets, for the then-minimum wage of $3.35. That’s how I know Mike Rowe is right about them.
Over the weekend, while promoting his new Discovery Channel show “Six Degrees,” Mike Rowe shared some thoughts on the push to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour. Appearing on Fox Business, the former “Dirty Jobs” star said he wants “everybody who works hard and plays fair to prosper.”
As the host, executive producer, and creator of “Six Degrees,” which focuses on the interconnectedness of the world throughout history, Rowe added:
I want everybody to be able to support themselves. But if you just pull the money out of midair you’re going to create other problems, like there is a ladder of success that people climb and some of those jobs that are out there for seven, eight, nine dollars an hour, in my view, they’re simply not intended to be careers. They’re not intended to be full-time jobs. They’re rungs on a ladder.
Rather than address the substance of Rowe’s critique, the left pounced, parlaying his comments as a modern-day equivalent of Marie Antoinette’s likely apocryphal, “Let them eat cake.”
Leftist commentator Adam Johnson added to Rowe’s comments on the minimum wage by republishing Rowe’s 2013 “S.W.E.A.T. Pledge” (Skill & Work Ethic Aren’t Taboo), calling it a “manifesto pledging oneself to gratuitous abuse and disenfranchisement and working to line the pockets of the boss.” According to Johnson, it’s “a brilliant piece of bourgeois propaganda,” because it “markets to very basic human needs: a sense of courage, honor, purpose, and morality.”
Others in the Twitter mob attacked with the same line of “reasoning” that claims men (who don’t menstruate) can’t comment on abortion policy because they can’t get pregnant. These far-left folks presented Rowe’s non-minimum-wage status as a gotcha.
For instance, one heavily-followed Twitter commentator, self-branded “Erica, The White Trash Socialist,” sought to refute Rowe’s point by noting he “has a degree in communications and has never worked a “dirty job” in his life by the way.” Then Erica, an electrician according to the Twitter bio, claimed to work actual dirty jobs. With this credential, she declared the “minimum wage should be 25 dollars an hour with full benefits.”
LGBTQ activist Charlotte Clymer “countered” Rowe’s point by reminding folks “he never had to climb that ladder in the first place,” unlike Clymer, who claimed to work “minimum wage jobs before and during college to pay the bills.”
Well, Rowe may have never worked a dirty job for minimum wage, but I did. From when I was a toddler to age 17 when I left for college, my family home was a trailer in a run-down mobile home park in rural Wisconsin. To Erika the Socialist (and James Carville), I likely qualified as “white trash.”
So, with the credential of a life originally lacking credentials, let me confirm my first minimum wage job was a rung — on which I didn’t stay on long.
Early on the following summer, while I was still only 14, my boss sent for me. Nervous I had unwittingly done something wrong, I went to his office. Contrary to my anxious expectations, he told me even though I had only worked a few weekends the prior fall, my work matched the more experienced girls returning to work at the summer camp. Then, he gave me a five-cent per hour raise to match their pay rate.
Over the next two years, I volunteered to fill in whenever needed, helping out the kitchen staff, and then, I climbed another rung, when my boss arranged for a professional baker at a neighboring summer camp to train me.
From ages 16 to 21, I served as the head baker at the small Wisconsin camp, earning well above the minimum wage full-time in the summer and on weekends in the spring and fall. The savings I accrued helped finance college, while the job experience and learned work ethic opened doors for me in the white-collar world when I needed a part-time job during the academic year.
After college, I paid for law school, worked at a law firm, then made a career as a full-time faculty member and a part-time career law clerk. Now, I have my most important (and most difficult) job: Mom.
Reading now over Rowe’s S.W.E.A.T. pledge, I see I followed it. It wasn’t a pledge “to gratuitous abuse and disenfranchisement.” What Johnson, who mocked the pledge as “bourgeois propaganda” marketing “very basic human needs” misses, is that hard, honest work genuinely satisfies basic human needs. Indeed, that five-cent raise I earned at 14 still brings me more pride than most of my later white-collar job achievements.
My story is not an isolated one, but I also recognize it is not universal, which is why policy and policy debates should not focus on the anecdotal but the reality of economics and unintended consequences. Rowe raised those points, and he is correct.
Minimum-wage jobs are rungs, and if the government offers an “artificially high wage for unskilled jobs,” it takes away the incentives for “more people to learn a skill that’s actually in demand” and are careers that do support families. That reality is no less true just because Rowe once sang opera.