Because lots of people in the media dislike Scott Walker, I expect this story to get a lot of coverage over the next couple of days. Basically, a labor interest group filed a complaint with the state government timed to coincide with the election asking the State Department of Labor to raise the minimum wage in accordance with Chapter 104 (specifically, 104.04), which requires the minimum wage to be a “living wage.” However, it also allows the government to take other economic factors into account – “including the effect of a living wage increase on job creation, retention, and expansion, on the availability of entry-level jobs, and on regional economic conditions within the state” – when determining what constitutes a “living wage.”
It’s plain that the request was an election trap. The labor interest group (“Wisconsin Jobs Now”) was hoping for a reply they could publish to make Scott Walker (his opponent favors a minimum wage increase) look bad, and they got it. The actual reply is here if you want to read it, but the point that works for Wisconsin Jobs Now is that it is terse and simply says that “there is no reasonable cause to believe that the wages paid to the complaintants are not a living wage.” Since Wisconsin minimum wage is $7.25/hr – the minimum allowed under federal guidelines – it is rather easy to make the case that the wage is not a “living wage” for the general definition.
I describe this as a “trap” because of course the popular definition of “living wage” is not the definition that WI lawmakers are bound by. The legal definition of a “living wage” is given in 104.01(5):
“Living wage” means compensation for labor paid, whether by time, piecework, or otherwise, sufficient to enable the employee receiving the compensation to maintain himself or herself under conditions consistent with his or her welfare.
Under which $7.25/hr is a “living wage.”
But here’s how the media chooses to report this.
From the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal:
A living wage is defined under the law as “reasonable comfort, reasonable physical well-being, decency and moral well-being.”
Um, no. The actual law says no such thing. Furthermore, the actual law is available online, and it took me all of about 5 minutes to find all by myself and without any help from anyone else and entirely lacking a law degree besides (incidentally, I read more state laws online than is healty for someone not in law school, and Wisconsin’s a refreshingly clear and organized).
Salon takes that bit of misinformation and cranks it up to 11. Uncritically adopting the Journal-Sentinel‘s version of the law, it goes on to note, irrelevantly, that someone at ThinkProgress named Brian Covert cites a study that a living wage in Madison would be $21.17/hr. It neglects to mention that this is for a single parent raising 2-3 children without state assistance. The state legal definition does not mandate calculation of a “living wage” on the basis of such families.
Indeed, if you read the ThinkProgress article Salon is citing, you learn something interesting that neither Salon nor the Journal-Sentinel wants to tell you: that most of the complaintants are citing wages over the current minimum wage, often as high as $15/hr. Which is interesting when you consider that Walker’s opponent wants to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 (Salon). Granted, ThinkProgress is able to name a few individuals who claim to have trouble paying their bills, but as the State Labor Department notes in a press conference response (not mentioned in either the Journal-Sentinel or Salon), there are public assistance programs that these workers qualify for to help with that.
So, as usual, this issue has less to do with wage fairness than the press would have you believe. A more accurate characterization would be that a public interest group submitted a legal request and is exploiting the difference between the cold, legal language that is appropriate for the response to such a request and crowd-pleasing political statements made during election time to try to embarass the governor. Meanwhile, their friends in the press publish definitions of “living wage” that are found nowhere in Wisconsin law as though they were the ones Gov. Walker is bound by.
As Brad DeLong might say (but won’t in this case, because he’s an ideologue who is only interested in press accuracy when it helps him smear ideological opponents), “why, oh why, can’t we have a better press corps?”