February 17, 2021

ON DRAMATICALLY RAISING THE MINIMUM WAGE: Here’s a passage from a 1990 article by historian James C. Cobb about the effect of the extension of the federal minimum wage to agricultural workers in 1967. The article is specifically about the effect in the Mississippi Delta area:

Another crucial reason for reduced agricultural employment in the Delta was the $1 per hour minimum wage law that went into effect on February 1, 1967. Social scientists and planners had seen such a law as the key to freeing black farm workers from the archaic system of credit and paternalism that had throttled them since the end of the nineteenth century. At first glance, a mandated wage of $1 per hour might seem a blessing to workers accustomed to receiving $3.50 for a twelve-hour day. Those who advocated the minimum wage law had presumed that planters would maintain employment at pre-1967 levels. Instead, the new law jerked the slack out of a system that was not yet fully mechanized and modernized. A year after the law took effect, a planter explained:

“Hell, last year was the first time we really found out what labor efficiency could mean. We knew we couldn’t use any more casual labor because of the minimum wage, and now we’re finding out we don’t need as much specialized labor either…”

One estimate suggested that the new law put twenty-five thousand able-bodied hands in the Delta out of jobs …. The elderly and partially disabled who were unable to move were thrown into far more desperate situations than when they had clung to bare subsistence as occasional field hands who could usually count on thirty days work in June and July chopping cotton and pulling weeds at $3.50 per day. … The wife of a day worker found the new law no blessing: “That dollar an hour ain’t worth nothing. It would have been better if it had been 50 cents a day if you work every day.”  Although planters continued to allow elderly or totally destitute blacks to remain in their shacks rent fee, when such dwellings became vacant, planters put a torch to them.

Yes, I know this is obvious:  Minimum wage laws put people out of their jobs.  But it looks like a lot of people are going to have to learn the hard way soon.

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