Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

What if there were no minimum wage?

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 12:55 PM EST, Sun February 24, 2013
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
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT