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They asked for a higher wage, but now they want fewer hours

You'd think the low-income workers would embrace a raise (in this case to $13 an hour) because it means more pay for the same amount of work. But they're not. (AP file photo)

We learned this week that a local nonprofit, Full Life Care, started to notice that their workers were asking to work less hours, despite getting a pay bump, thanks to Phase 1 of the $15 an hour law. Obviously that might shock some of you. If you’re low income and you just got a raise (in this case to $13 an hour), you’d think the workers would embrace this because it means more pay for the same amount of work.

But they’re not embracing it.

Nora Gibson, director of this nonprofit, told KIRO TV: “This has nothing to do with people’s willingness to work, or how hard people work. It has to do with being caught in a very complex situation where they have to balance everything they can pull together, to pull together a stable, successful life.”

It turns out, they’re asking for less hours because now that they’re making more money, they’re being taken off subsidies that make their life just a little bit easier for them. Without it, they’re making more of an hourly wage, but they’re still poor (and now without additional help).

Justine Decker is a full-time student with a 3-year-old son and a part-time job, and implies there’s no incentive for her to work full time because if she makes too much, it cuts into her subsidies for rent and childcare.

“A one-bedroom can cost upward of $1,200. And so imagine paying that, and paying childcare which can be $900 something dollars,” Decker said.

Now, I understand her perspective. It’s human nature to want to do what’s best for you and your family. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not a hard worker or that you “want” to work less hours. It simply means you’re in a better position to work less hours because working more ends up hurting you financially. It’s complex, indeed.

What was lost in this entire $15 minimum wage demand was a conversation about the unintended consequences. Activists rushed to $15 an hour without reviewing the implications; as if this wage increase wasn’t connected to other issues.

Seattle City Councilman Nick Licata explains, “We need more information, for one thing. This is anecdotal.”

He’s right that we need more information, but is he pretending that it’s unreasonable to assume subsidies create a dependence on the government that’s giving it to you? This isn’t a new concept; it’s been a consistent criticism of welfare.

That you have no incentive to do too much work to get yourself out of a bad situation &#8212 you just do enough to get by and earn help &#8212 is not a new concept. It is a dangerous feeling to have, whether you’re doing it out of self-preservation, like Justine, or you’re doing it because you’re just unmotivated.

Activists didn’t want to have this conversation, though; they rushed to pass a feel-good, ideologically driven proposal without understanding the consequences. And when you take positions based solely on ideology, you run a great risk that you’re not seeing things clearly and not understanding the context of your decisions. It happens on the right and the left.

So right now you’ve created a system that critics said would happen all along. You’ve given them a higher wage, but they’re holding themselves back because if they don’t, they end up hurting themselves and their situation.

Basic human nature says you don’t put yourself in a bad position if you can help it. And welfare, in general, does that; I’m not against welfare in every form but understand every single subsidy you provide, you make it easier and easier for people not to work hard enough to pull themselves out of a bad situation. You take away the subsidy, all of a sudden, basic human nature kicks in and you’re in self-preservation mode. Meaning, you work as hard as possible to improve your situation. And a lot of time, you end up succeeding (not always, which is why I’m not against ending welfare; I’m simply in favor of reforming it).

We’re capable of so much more than we think and we can never prove that because we always have a safety net – though in this case the net is so big you’re not put in a position to even try to better your situation on your own.

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