Analysis: Montgomery County Executive Debate Addresses Minimum Wage Question Through The Wrong Narrative.

Elrich Prioritizes Livable Wages in Bid For Montgomery County’s Top Office

On Monday night, Marc Elrich did not hesitate to call attention to the bill to raise the minimum wage in Montgomery County to $15 and its contentious, timeline-extending amendments. In his opening statement for the Montgomery County Sentinel’s live-streamed debate among the County Executive candidates in Rockville, the at-large councilmember was the first to directly lay out the livable wage issue as a priority. The statements that followed from the other candidates, however, set the tone for what I see as a fundamentally flawed narrative in the debate over HHS bill 28-17 - that which pits livable wages and thriving businesses against one another as competing interests.

While councilmember George Leventhal’s opening statements avoided this dichotomy in favor of a general call for a focus on the “jobs of tomorrow” as Montgomery County reaches a “political crossroads,” council president Roger Berliner’s and House Delegate Bill Frick’s initial references to the wage issue were made on the premise that minimum wage increases risk creating a hostile business environment. As Frick briefly mentioned the need to raise the minimum wage at the state level, the House Majority Leader emphasized the need not to be “hostile to business” in the County. Berliner, similarly, cautioned against allowing Montgomery to be perceived as “a foe for business.” 

Regulatory, Wage Increase Questions Solidify Flawed Narrative Framework

Two major components of Monday’s debate essentially called for the candidates to tailor their responses to the narrative of competing interests. One of the first questions in the debate urged the candidates to discuss “remedies for small businesses” feeling pressured by minimum wage increases and other regulatory standards. Once again, the premise of the question was that regulations imposing a livable wage are at odds with small business interests.

As a side note, I’d like to emphasize where I distinguish between “the livable wage” as a goal and “the $15 minimum wage” as a bill. The $15 minimum wage bill refers specifically to HHS Bill 28-17, on which public testimonies are discussed in an earlier blog. Whether or not the $15 figure is a “livable wage” was also discussed, but for the purpose of this analysis, the “livable wage” refers to the bill’s purpose and integrity, considering its schedule, timeline, and implementation.

In the discussion of “remedies” for small businesses in Montgomery County’s regulatory climate, Leventhal and Berliner highlighted the need for “balance.” Both answers placed well within the structure of addressing regulatory and business interests as competing entities calling for a compromise in optimizing the effectiveness of both forces. Frick and Elrich, on the other hand, pointed out the nuances of regulation. Frick, appropriately, affirmed that not all regulations are the same, highlighting that some regulations facilitate good things, while others can effectively be streamlined or eliminated. Elrich, likewise, called for the dialogue with business owners to address more specific regulations that may be at odds with small business interests, as opposed to the concept of regulations as a whole.

Frick, however, did revert to the framework of the competing interest narrative with his emphasis on making Montgomery County “more business friendly,” assuming his reference to implicit business hostility within a functional regulatory structure. While the candidates likely agree that regulations can be made more efficient, the overarching theme of “compromise” and “balance” set a deceptive tone as the debate returned to the minimum wage issue. 

The “Competing Truths” Assumption

The presumed labor-versus-management dichotomy all but cemented as the candidates discussed strategies to raise the minimum wage. Berliner ardently defended current county executive Isiah Leggett’s position, advocating for the timeline to be extended to 2022 for large businesses and 2024 for small business. Berliner spoke of the need to “harmonize the competing truths” of business constraints and the livable wage, while assuring that Leggett’s criticism of the pace of the implementation was not “heartless” or “lacking compassion.” Frick, meanwhile, emphasized how minimum wage thresholds would be best enforced at the state level.

The House Delegate astutely avoided indicating a prioritization of either business interests or labor interests, although his responses still framed the issue as a necessary compromise between the two.  Both Leventhal and Elrich, however, effectively refuted claims that any wage increase would be implemented at the expense of small businesses and employment figures. Leventhal reminded the candidates and the audience that unemployment in Montgomery County has consistently decreased as the minimum rage has increased incrementally since 2013. Elrich referred to the extended timeline and argued that if the concern was that the original timeline would burden small businesses, there is no justification to delay the implementation timeline for large businesses. Elrich punctuated his statement by pointing out that the arguments in opposition to the $15 minimum wage mirrored those in opposition to previous wage increases  - all of which predicted job losses and business closures that never occurred.

Who Knows What It Is Really Like To Live On Minimum Wage?

To wrap up the segment, moderator Brian Karem asked each candidate whether or not they have ever worked for minimum wage. Berliner, once again, portrayed the role of the small business owner as the foil to the minimum wage earner, attributing his personal connection with the minimum wage policy to his experience running a business. In the answers that followed, however, I must give credit to Bill Frick for admitting that that having worked a pair of minimum wage jobs as a teenager or college student does not equal the experience of relying primarily on the minimum wage for subsistence.

“I was able to come home to a cabinet that was already full,” Frick said of his suburban upbringing. Considering Frick’s honesty, however, I was reminded of a previous PMD Montgomery meeting where those in attendance shared cautionary tales of reliance on the minimum wage and how people across many demographics may find themselves subsisting on it through periods of their lives – for some, it would be temporary; for others, not so much.

In contrast, Elrich recounted having subsisted on the minimum wage during his youth, highlighting how far the minimum wage had once reached. Elrich did not claim to share the plight of those attempting to subsist on the minimum wage today; rather, he enumerated the basic costs the wage could cover decades ago: tuition, a room in a group house, food, gas for the car, etc. The councilmember did not need to challenge the rest of his audience to assess whether or not similar costs could be covered by the minimum wage today; the answer was clear.

Make Wages Livable Again

Marc Elrich described a basic subsistence lifestyle. Though nothing fancy, the costs covered by the minimum wage in his youth were enough to ensure the possibility to dedicate oneself to the search for higher-paying work while not falling into a financial hole. Whether or not any reasonable minimum wage floor could cover today’s housing and tuition costs is a subject for another debate, but it is worth mentioning in the context of this discourse that some rising costs are generally accepted as a part of reality to contend with, while others are not.

Business owners speak of rising overhead costs, increases in rent and utilities, etc; but for some reason, it is the employee wage threshold that stands as the game-changer in their bottom line. Why are wage increases, indexed to the cost of living, accepted as something more discretionary than other cost hikes? The County Executive debate, while an encouraging dialogue headed in the right direction, was stuck in the narrative that frames employee wages as a net negative for business owners.

In order to pass a bill that maintains the integrity of its purpose to bring the minimum wage up to satisfy the basic cost of living, the narrative needs to shift toward the data exposing the minimum wage increase as a net positive. Instead of focusing on how the increased wage would compromise a business’s “bottom line,” why not call attention to the mutual benefits of increased consumer spending among low income families, or increased productivity and decreased turnover rates among employees? With this focus, PMD Montgomery will support a bill that maintains the integrity of the mission towards implementing a livable wage for all who work full time – not a bill that serves as merely a checked box next to the names of those wishing to be on board for the Fight for $15. 

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