Some friends and I eat lunch once a week. We are all over 65.
This question came up: "Was it possible for a kid to work his way through college when we were in college?" The unanimous answer was “Yes.” Some of us had done it, and all of us knew people who had done it.
The next question was: “Can a kid work his way through college today?” The unanimous answer was “No.”
Following that, someone asked: “When we were growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, could a person making minimum wage support a family?” The unanimous answer was “Yes.” You could pay the rent, own a car, feed your family, and make it on the minimum wage in the 1950s and 1960s.
The next question was: “Can a person making the minimum wage today raise a family?” The unanimous answer was “No.”
Here is why, back then, a kid could work his way through college. Back then, we as a state and a nation valued a college education so much that we voted to pay the taxes necessary to fund colleges with enough public funds to keep tuition low enough that a kid working part-time during the school year and full-time during the summer could earn enough money to pay the cost of going to college.
Here is why, back then, a person making the minimum wage could support his family. Back then, we valued work so much that we set the minimum wage level high enough that a person who worked full-time at minimum wage could support his family. Back then, we valued work so much that if the minimum wage level caused the price of a hamburger to go up a few cents, we thought it was worth it to encourage people to work and reward those who did work.
What is the difference between “back then” and now?
We have been unwilling to tax ourselves at a level so as to keep tuition low enough so a kid can work his way through college.
We have been unwilling to raise the minimum wage to keep up with the increases in the cost of living so as to enable that minimum wage earner to support his family.
The possible reasons why we have allowed this to happen are: (1) we are more selfish than the preceding generations who invested in their children; or (2) we don’t value a college degree or the concept of working as highly as we did back then.
Neither one of those answers makes me feel good. We know that a college degree is much more important now that it was 40 or 50 years ago. And since when did working full-time become something not worth rewarding?
I respectfully submit that we ought to take a good, hard look in the mirror and change how we fund public education and how we set the minimum wage level.
How we decide these issues has nothing to do with whether we are liberal, moderate, conservative, Republican or Democrat; these issues reflect what kind of people we are and what we value.
Bill Jones, of Ruston, is a former Louisiana state senator.