I’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?