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Editorial: When did minimum become middle class?

According to the Democrats representing New Mexico in Congress – and all but one in the New Mexico Senate – if we just raise the minimum wage we can “strengthen the economy and help lift more families into the middle class.”

All support Senate Joint Resolution 13, sponsored by Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Española, which would put a constitutional amendment before voters increasing the minimum wage to $8.30 an hour starting in July 2015 and allowing annual increases of up to 4 percent to keep up with inflation. The proposal made it out of the Senate on a 24-17 vote, with fiscal pragmatist and Finance Committee chair Sen. John Arthur Smith siding with Republicans. Now headed to the House, it has earned a hearty email endorsement from the Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation.

The plan, though heartfelt, is intellectually hampered at its core because it turns the state Constitution, a document meant to be “a body of fundamental principles,” into a detail-oriented micromanaging laundry list that sidesteps the balance of powers it created. Constitutional amendments skip the executive branch.

If we are going to raise the state minimum wage, it should be done through the normal course of legislative give-and-take that takes into consideration various factors every time it is considered. And while it sounds easy to give minimum-wage workers 80 cents an hour more to start, the predicted effects are nothing if not complex.

The most recent four-week national average of unemployment claims showed joblessness up, from 333,750 to 334,000. Around 2.96 million people were receiving unemployment checks the week that ended Jan. 25.

Forcing employers to increase what they pay their employees will have an immediate effect of reducing the number of employees they have. Case in point: In 2007 when Congress forced the territory of American Samoa to phase in a minimum wage increase to align with the continental United States, Chicken of the Sea simply shut its cannery and Starkist laid off workers, cut hours and benefits, and froze hiring.

Perhaps it is only accelerating the inevitable – in Metro Albuquerque grocery stores have been busy converting cashier- and sacker-manned checkouts to self-service lanes, even electronic pods read water meters – jobs that used to be done by people.

Most minimum-wage jobs were designed to be entry level. Yet U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham says in the email that “a strong, thriving middle class is the key to jump starting New Mexico’s economy and ensuring our future success. But at today’s minimum wage, New Mexico workers are denied the opportunity to enter the middle class.”

Is New Mexico’s middle-class really destined to be made up of dishwashers and folks who man the drive-thru lane? Make no mistake, those are honest jobs. But they are jobs designed to help employees, primarily young employees, make ends meet while they get some workplace experience and improve their education and/or skill set. They were a way to work up to the middle class, not stay in forever because they made you middle class.

That lack of upward mobility will continue to hurt young workers and the economy. Nationally, 15 percent of those ages 16 to 24 are unemployed, compared with 7.3 percent of all workers. According to a new report from the Young Invincibles, a postrecession youth advocacy group, that adds up to $25 billion a year in uncollected taxes, increased safety net expenditures and an unprepared workforce.

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall says in the email that “our nation was founded on the promise that – no matter your background – anyone who works hard can get ahead. It’s time to raise the minimum wage to make sure we’re keeping that promise.” The senior senator and other raise-the-minimum-wage supporters are omitting the step that says anyone who works hard at improving their employability via experience and education can get a better, and better-paying, job.

That’s where the state and national focus should be, on training and educating the entry-level workforce so it can, in turn, advance to the jobs that will actually drive economic growth and hand those entry-level positions over to the next generation of hard-working Americans.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.