When I was making $9 an hour working at Starbucks, money was tight. Every extra dollar I could save was a dollar I could put towards an apartment so I could have a permanent place to live. Or, it went towards tuition, or textbooks, or food for the nights I couldn’t steal pastries after closing and had to buy myself a meal. Everyday on the way to the bus I’d walk past this little local coffee shop and feel sad thinking about how I shouldn’t spend money I don’t have. Everyday I was making my pathetic little wage was a day that the local coffee shop was deprived of a customer.
The point being, small businesses and minimum wage workers shouldn’t be pitted against each other. However, that’s exactly the argument that is being made right now. Increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour was floated in the latest stimulus bill, but ultimately was defeated—with concerns about small businesses being a key argument.
No one wants to see small business struggle with the increased labor costs that would come with a minimum wage increase, but aren’t there other ways small businesses can be helped that don’t involve keeping an entire sector of the country poor and destitute?
At current wages, shopping at small businesses is always a luxury for the lowest earners in our economy. The local grocer is always more expensive than Walmart, the local fashion boutique is always more expensive than H&M, and so on and so forth. 17 million Americans would see wage increases if they rose to $15 an hour, which means 17 million more Americans could become new clientele for our favorite small businesses that never seem to have enough customers.
Instead of crushing one struggling facet of the economy in order to save another, the government should look for other ways to support small businesses. In order to offset the higher wages they would need to pay, they could get offered special loans and grants, tax breaks or credits, or otherwise receive assistance from the government. Large businesses and corporations receive boatloads of subsidies every year, and this kind of support could be shifted to small businesses as well. It is a deeply cynical maneuver to insist that the only way small businesses can be viable is to keep their workers in poverty, and it ignores the broader spectrum of ways these businesses could be helped.
Local businesses are one of the few remaining vestiges of a time when cities and communities felt distinct from one another. They are relics of a time before every town congregated in the shopping centers full of chain restaurants and copy + paste retail stores. Shopping with them is one of the few ways a normal person can still connect with the authentic lifeblood of their community. It is magical that a person can interact with a business born out of the dreams and aspirations of their neighbors. The nation should be looking for ways to expand the amount of people who can participate in small business commerce, not locking away workers because their wages will forever be low. So, give me more money—I promise to spend it at the local coffee shop.
Vincent Rendon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @VinceSagebrush.