February 22 2008
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Living wage movements are gaining momentum on college campuses across the country. As one component of a larger social justice agenda, campus living wage measures represent student efforts to promote egalitarianism and acknowledge the basic dignity of campus employees. Students argue that the work of housekeepers, gardeners, and security staff, for example, often goes unnoticed and unappreciated, and therefore advocate raising minimum compensation so that any full-time worker earns enough to afford a "living." Students believe that college endowments are large enough to withstand the extra expense of increased employment costs, especially since doing so will strengthen the sense of community on campus.
Student activists, however, ignore the broader implications of living wage measures, which mimic those of federal and state minimum wage laws. Acting like a tax on employment, a living wage mandate results in layoffs and displacement. As jobs disappear, the competition for each available position intensifies and low-skilled workers find it even more difficult to find employment. Disadvantaged communities suffer most from the resulting stagnancy; underemployment among young black males, for example, is often attributed to the job destruction caused by the widespread establishment of minimum wages.
Books like Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed-now required reading at several leading universities-bolster the popularity of living wage activism. The unity between curriculum and campus activism is potent and appealing, but results in one-sided discourse on these issues. To ensure prudent decision making on campus, students must carefully examine the consequences of living wage mandates.
Written by Elise Viebeck