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bank-robberI’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: What of Mediocre Fred?

For newbies, Mediocre Fred is a decent, honest, hard-working guy. He doesn’t cheat on his taxes, obeys the law and is kind to small furry creatures. As such, he’s not exactly rewarded like a paragon of the American way.

Here in America we base our entire system of government on one simple principle: No freeloaders. You have to work for a living. As a nation we abhor the notion of those who work the system to get the promised land of freebies without pulling their own weight. Well, at least on the bottom end of the scale.

Mediocre Fred has worked every week of his life since he was 16. When still in school he worked part-time. After graduating with his high school diploma, he went full-time and has never looked back.

Over the decades Mediocre Fred has always worked. He’s had no pension, 401k plan, health insurance, vacation or paid days off. He just works. And when his fellow workers tried to unionize and the company closed and bulldozed the store and built a new non-union store across the street, Mediocre Fred always seemed to land on his feet. He’d just get a new job and keep his nose to that grindstone.

That’s what you’re supposed to do, right?

Not an ambitious or glamorous sort, Mediocre Fred didn’t rise up through the ranks. He was taught that honest work is its own reward. He was content to work minimum wage. As long as there was enough money left over at the end of the week for a cold six-pack he figured he was doing okay.

Of course, by now, a lot of people reading this may have had a strong visceral reaction to Mediocre Fred’s story. Some might consider him a “loser” for not being more ambitious and making more money. Some may criticize his ambition and failure to climb that latter. If so, that’s the built-in and irrational dichotomy of the so-called American way. Don’t be lazy, but don’t be like Mediocre Fred, either. Maybe that’s why he falls through the cracks.

The fact is that someone has to be working those minimum wage jobs. If not, minimum wage would be some higher number. Right?

In fact, some in our country think minimum wage should be lower. It’s already too high, in their opinion. They figure they should be able to pay as low as the most desperate among us are willing to accept. Such a lovely notion.

I’ve asked a question about Mediocre Fred in the past, and, as of yet, have never received a satisfactory answer. How does he access the American dream? Is it satisfactory that he gets nothing (beyond minimum wage itself) in exchange for being that piece of bedrock American to which we pay lip service?

Because, I submit, if there is anything that makes America strong, it’s people like Mediocre Fred who get the job done. It’s not the one percent or the bankers who leach wealth or investors in high-rise buildings who shuffle little bits of pieces of paper.

I recently came across a graph (see below) that shows, by state, the number of hours a minimum wage employee must work in order to pay the rent. In Oregon, for example, it’s 72 hours. When Mediocre Fred goes to the property management company and fills out his application and submits to the credit check and income verification process, one of the rental company’s criteria is that there must be an income/housing ratio of 30 percent or lower. That’s because experience has taught them that if someone is paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent, the risk they will default on rent quickly increases. And property rental companies don’t like that.

So, on paper, as a minimum wage employee working full time, Mediocre Fred can’t even qualify on paper to rent a place to live. I’ve been in this situation. (It kicked off what I like to call The Decade of Despair.) Luckily I was given a chance, they violated their own ratio criteria, and I always paid my rent. I felt so lucky, like I had won the lotto. Wow, they let me have a place to live. Fortunately I was able to live on a very lean budget.

The data on the graph shows that this situation is true in all fifty states and especially the District of Columbia at 132 hours (which is only beaten by New York at 139). Imagine working 160 hours a month and 132 of them are spent on rent. That doesn’t leave much left over for accessing the American dream, does it? (Edit: Okay, I missed a couple others. Still, DC is still high on the list.)

And this is how we reward those who choose to be honest, work for a living, and avoid being the dreaded leaches on the system? I’m still waiting for an answer on how these folks should be rewarded for what they do. But, so far, it’s just me hanging out with the crickets.

People who love capitalism love to bandy words about like “incentive.” Well, what if the rewards for a life of honesty and work are low, and the rewards for something else, perhaps a life of crime, are much, much higher? What then? Do you think that just might have an effect on the choices made my humans? Might those also be some incentivized behaviors?

Some will say that minimum wage jobs are only intended for young people starting out. Who made that rule? Who’s intention? Where is this written? Meanwhile, the facts tell a different story. 80 percent of minimum wage workers are 26 or older. (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.) Whatever the so-called intentions, that’s not the reality of what it really is.

On the TV every night I see human beings who have made the choice to become bank robbers. This seems like a pretty drastic and outlier type of choice to me. It makes me wonder about the person and their existence. Sure, a lot of people are psychopaths and/or sociopaths and would rob a bank at the drop of a hat.

But I surmise that there’s another group. Those that are otherwise honest and decent but also marginalized to the point that they feel they have no other choice. Or they may read the writing on the wall and see where that road of honest labor is a dead end of a false dream. Maybe they figure, what the hell, just roll the dice.

When the outcomes aren’t that much different it’s not as big of a decision as you might think.

My personal theory is that you must first have something to lose for risk aversion to have any meaning. If you have a reasonable standard of living, are providing for yourself and your family, and have reasonable access to the American dream, why risk it all to do something like rob a bank? For most people in that type of situation it just wouldn’t make sense. I believe there is a correlation between income and crime. The more you make the more you have to lose. Thus, less likely to resort to a criminal act (like robbing a bank) and risking what you already have.

Perhaps a little empathy thought experiment might be telling. How would you feel if you worked full time and that wasn’t good enough to pay the rent?

minimum-wage-graph

9 responses

  1. I remember Mediocre Fred from another post. Is that guy still working for the man and only taking home the minimum wage? Bless his heart. If I had the ways and the means, I’d hire him. I’d cut his hours in half and triple his salary. And all the health coverage he could ever need…for him and his family.

    And to all employers out there who are bitching about the rise in minimum wage…just shut the fuck up and get over your slave mentality. No one should be forced to live a life of poverty. They’re not asking to be rich…they’d just like to get by in life a little easier.

    Fuck, this subject pisses me off. I have to stop writing before I break my laptop.

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    1. He’s hypothetical, although, for a time, after moving to a small town, he was my alter ego. Now he lives on only as a construct of my fertile imagination. I’m pretty sure there are people like him, though.

      Oh, I lied in this post. While making minimum wage I got that apartment when my hours were only part-time. And I was a single dad with a young gerbil in tow. Somehow we got through it and only accepted the Oregon Trail (food stamps program) for three months to help make ends meet.

      Funny how our whole system is supposed to be about incentivizing behavior until the paradigm breaks down and we’re left with the example of an honest, hard-working person who’s basically told to suck it. Like everything else in life, the incentive argument is only useful until it becomes fair to someone else, then we chuck it.

      Breaking your laptop will support the economy by creating jobs. That’s very thoughtful of you.

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      1. Totally agree. The gap between the working poor and elites is getting wider every minute. If you work hard and are honest, trying to raise a family, the value of what you bring to the economy is sorely underrated. Society is confusing the hard working rich with the rich who are only rich because they are “celebrities.” I’m so sick of these people and now no longer click on any articles about them. You know who I’m talking about. There was one commercial that kept playing while I was watching the Oscars…the Cadillac commercial about how the French take off the month of August and only work to live. The commercial implied that Americans would never get far in life with that lifestyle. But did you see the house the guy in the commercial was living in? A 1% lifestyle if ever I saw one. Shameful.

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    2. P.S. I appreciate your comment, even when the shit isn’t very funny. I’ve come to rely on you. 🙂

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      1. You tell it like it really is. There’s value in that. 🙂

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  2. It always blows me away to look at a minimum wage and try to apply it into real world expenses. It’s a desperate formula. My state is comes in at 137.

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    1. I guess that’s pretty much why not other argument is ever offered except for the “it’s supposed to be for teenagers.” Watch carefully and you’ll see a trend. That’s pretty much the only card that ever gets played.

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  3. There aren’t enough hours in the month to cover Hawaii.

    When I was younger, min wage jobs were supposed to be the entry-level jobs for kids in high school and summer jobs for college kids. That they’ve morphed into something that adults need to have AS their job still strikes me as wrong.

    Of course, corporate profits are at an all time high, so that’s good, right? And those profits are being dispersed to the top 0.1% of Americans, so that’s great too. Trickle down, indeed.

    I don’t have an answer. I wish I did. It sadly involves the societal conscience of those in the 0.1%, but I think they live in a very different bubble than MF.

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    1. Zoinks! I totally missed Hawaii. Must have been the tropical adult beverages with little umbrellas.

      Don’t bet on that conscience thing. You’ll lose. Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight. You’ll lose.

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