Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

What if there were no minimum wage?

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
February 24, 2013 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene asks: What would life in U.S. be like if there were no minimum wage
  • For most of U.S. history, there was no minimum wage; it started in 1938 under FDR
  • Obama wants to raise it. Others, like Speaker Boehner, oppose it as costly to business
  • Greene: With minimum wage nation tells workers: What you do has value worth protecting

Editor's note: CNN contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story," "Chevrolet Summers, Dairy Queen Nights," and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- Here's a question for you:

What do you think life in the United States would be like if there were no minimum wage?

If employers were allowed to pay workers anything they wanted?

Would much of American life turn into something out of Charles Dickens? Or would the country flourish?

It's not as outrageous a notion as it sounds.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

For most of the time this nation has existed, that was the case: There simply was no such thing as a minimum wage.

Right now the minimum-wage debate is in the news because President Barack Obama has proposed that it be raised. Currently, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour; Obama wants it to be raised to $9 per hour.

In his State of the Union address this month, the president said:

"Let's declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty."

The political battle will be over how much -- if at all -- the $7.25 minimum wage should be raised. There is significant opposition to an increase; Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, speaker of the House of Representatives, summed it up when he said:

"When you raise the price of employment, guess what happens? You get less of it. Why would we want to make it harder for small employers to hire people?"

Would minimum wage hike hurt economy?
Group pushes minimum wage raise

There was no U.S. minimum wage at all until the eve of World War II. States had tried to institute minimum wages, but the United States Supreme Court repeatedly struck down those state laws. The Supreme Court's reasoning was that a minimum wage deprived workers of the right to set the price of their own labor.

CNNMoney: The impact of a $9 minimum wage

This sounded increasingly absurd during the Great Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, knowing he had the nation on his side, threw down the gauntlet when he proclaimed: "All but the hopeless reactionary will agree that to conserve our primary resources of manpower, government must have some control over maximum hours, minimum wages, the evil of child labor, and the exploitation of unorganized labor." A federal minimum-wage law was passed that the Supreme Court did not overturn.

And so, in 1938, the first federal minimum wage went into effect:

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Twenty-five cents per hour.

As the number has increased over the decades, there have always been serious voices in agreement with Boehner's position: that when the minimum wage is raised, businesses are able to hire and pay fewer workers, so that not only is the economy harmed, but people who want jobs have a more difficult time finding them.

On the other side, some economists argue that the higher-minimum-wages-means-fewer-jobs theory is, in the phrase used by former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, "baloney." Reich recently wrote that providing a bottom line beneath which workers' hourly pay must not fall is the nation's moral duty, and "a decent society should do no less."

The minimum wage has been a part of American life for so long now that very few citizens have any memory of a time when it did not exist. But the United States was built by workers who were guaranteed no minimum wage -- in a country that, until the 1938 law, let the marketplace determine how much anyone was paid.

(Reich's contention is that there is really no such thing as "a 'market' that exists separate from society. . .[T]here's no 'market' in a state of nature, just survival of the fittest.")

Some states have their own minimum-wage standards that are higher than the federal rate; the states are free to demand that workers earn more per hour than the federal $7.25 level, but may not pass laws that pay workers less.

One of those states is Florida, where the current minimum wage is $7.79 per hour. I asked Mike King, a grocery worker in Collier County earning the minimum wage, if the increase to $9 would make an appreciable difference in his life.

"There's no question about it," he said.

What may seem like small change to wealthier people, he said, would allow people in his situation to be at least a little better off: "I'd be able to buy better quality food some of the time. I could pay for gas and car insurance, so I could drive to my job instead of taking public transportation or riding a bicycle. And it would help me be able to pay my electricity and phone bills on time."

The federal minimum-wage law has always served a symbolic purpose beyond setting a specific number.

It has sent a signal to even the lowest-paid workers:

The country believes that what you do has value. The country will offer you a layer of protection that no one can undercut.

Today's column began with one question, so let's end it with another.

If there had never been a minimum-wage law passed -- if, as in the years before 1938, Americans today could be paid as little as employers could get away with -- and if, in 2013, someone in Congress proposed the first law ever that would guarantee workers a minimum wage. . . .

Do you think, in our current political atmosphere, such a law would have a chance of passing?

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1819 GMT (0219 HKT)
As a woman whose parents had cancer, I have quite a few things to say about dying with dignity.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1304 GMT (2104 HKT)
David Gergen says he'll have a special eye on a few particular races in Tuesday's midterms that may tell us about our long-term future.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1452 GMT (2252 HKT)
What's behind the uptick in clown sightings? And why the fascination with them? It could be about the economy.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1301 GMT (2101 HKT)
Midterm elections don't usually have the same excitement as presidential elections. That should change, writes Sally Kohn.
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Mike Downey says the Giants and the Royals both lived through long title droughts. What teams are waiting for a win?
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1832 GMT (0232 HKT)
Mel Robbins says if a man wants to talk to a woman on the street, he should follow 3 basic rules.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2103 GMT (0503 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say more terrorism plots are disrupted by families than by NSA surveillance.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2125 GMT (0525 HKT)
Time magazine has clearly kicked up a hornet's nest with its downright insulting cover headlined "Rotten Apples," says Donna Brazile.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
Leroy Chiao says the failure of the launch is painful but won't stop the trend toward commercializing space.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Timothy Stanley: Though Jeb Bush has something to offer, another Bush-Clinton race would be a step backward.
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
ADVERTISEMENT