Behaviorism and Raising the Minimum Wage

BF Skinner

Raising the minimum wage has recently become a major political issue. The movement began with fast food workers over a year ago, and their protests have spread to over 100 cities as workers rally together for a $15 minimum wage. Currently, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour but a 2012 study from the Center for Economic Policy and Research found that if the “minimum wage had continued to move with the average productivity…it would have reached $21.72 per hour in 2012.” That’s a pretty big difference. This stark contrast has gained the attention of politicians and the public, with President Obama calling for a $10 minimum wage and Seattle, Washington developing plans to increase their minimum wage to $15 per hour.

Public and private institutions are advocating for a higher minimum wage with Gap Inc., which includes Banana Republic and Old Navy, announcing plans to raise their minimum wage to $10 by 2015. There are those who hesitate to raise the minimum wage as it could have negative effects on the economy or “kill jobs.” This argument is that employers will be inclined to keep their workforce small if they have to pay $15 an hour per employee. This speculation is valid, however a 2013 study done by the Labor Center at UC Berkeley on low wage fast food workers found that $7 billion per year is spent on government assistance for fast food workers and their families. If low wage workers were able to make more money, their reliance on tax payer funded public assistance would decrease. Reducing the number of families relying on government assistance is something conservatives and liberals can both agree on. The public nevertheless seems to support this national move towards a higher minimum wage—75% of women and 65% of men are in favor of raising the minimum wage. Federal and state governments, as well as private corporations, are moving towards raising the minimum wage, and public opinion seems to support this progress. Psychology, and behaviorism specifically, can hep us understand how raising the minimum wage could be a good thing.

Behaviorism is a branch of psychology that focuses on observable behavior, rather than cognition or emotion. B.F. Skinner, the father of behaviorism, believed free will did not determine our actions, but positive or negative consequences, such as the removal of a negative stimulus or the presence of  a positive one. Behaviorism is extremely straightforward, theorizing that if there is a positive consequence we are more likely to do something, and if there is a negative consequence we will stop doing something. If we apply this theory to the idea of minimum wage, it seems in the best interest of businesses and the government to raise the minimum wage, thus increasing the positive consequence of workers’ behaviors and their willingness to work.

Of course,  by the nature of the minimum wage workers are forced to accept the wage no matter how low if they want a job. But to increase the minimum wage would increase workers willingness to do work, and possibly their job satisfaction. Additionally, when businesses increase their minimum wage, they improve their image. For example, Costco and In-n-Out receive lots of positive media attention for their policy of paying workers a starting wage of around $11, and American Apparel is famous for its hipster consumer base as well as the fact that it is sweatshop free and manufacturers all of its clothes in Downtown LA. Having positive business practices helps a company’s workers and also its public image. With a great public image, individuals will be more likely to shop, live in or seek employment at businesses or states with high starting salaries or minimum wages. Increasing the minimum wage can benefit everyone involved, and maybe one day soon earning $21.72 per hour won’t seem so crazy.

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Undergraduate research assistant and blogger for the Moral Communities Project **The opinions and views expressed are my own and do not reflect the official positions of The Moral Communities Project or its funders.

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