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
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1812 GMT (0212 HKT)
By now it should be painfully obvious that this latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in Gaza is fundamentally different than its predecessors.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 2124 GMT (0524 HKT)
Sally Kohn says like the Occupy Wall Street protesters, Market Basket workers are asking for shared prosperity.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2331 GMT (0731 HKT)
President Obama will convene an Africa summit Monday at the White House, and Laurie Garrett asks why the largest Ebola epidemic ever recorded is not on the agenda.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Seventy years ago, Anne Frank made her final entry in her diary -- a work, says Francine Prose, that provides a crucial link to history for young people.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2350 GMT (0750 HKT)
Van Jones says "student" debt should be called "education debt" because entire families are paying the cost.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2300 GMT (0700 HKT)
Marc Randazza: ESPN commentator fell victim to "PC" police for suggesting something outside accepted narrative.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says working parents often end up being arrested after leaving kids alone.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2031 GMT (0431 HKT)
Shanin Specter says we need to strengthen laws that punish auto companies for selling defective cars.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
ADVERTISEMENT