When I was 15, I wrapped burritos.
My dad decided it would be a good idea for me to get a "real" job, and I wanted the money to buy guitar things. So, I washed bowls and endlessly asked "Cheese, pico and lettuce?" and tried to avoid getting addicted to cigarettes for three years until I joyously quit my job my senior year. Thanks to that experience, I came to college ready to avoid (at all costs) that type of job: I did not want to turn out like my co-worker — a 30-year-old line cook at a Tex-Mex restaurant.
I was a tourist in the world of the working class, a teenager freshly back from a mission trip complete with orphan selfies and a testimonial. But for my co-worker, that job wasn't a learning experience; it was her way of making a living. I took a temporary dip into the world of hard work to "see what it was like" and "learn from it." She was barely getting by.
This distinction has been especially vivid in the recent debate around President Barack Obama's goal of raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10. If it happens, who wins and who loses?
The Congressional Budget Office, led by Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, made a clear prediction— a raise to $10.10 an hour "would eliminate about 500,000 jobs by 2016 but increase pay for millions of Americans and lift nearly a million out of poverty."
Other conservatives, namely The Heritage Foundation, disagree entirely. Its header reads "Increased Minimum Wage Does Not Reduce Poverty." The group claims that over half of people working for minimum wage are under 24, and that the real way to reduce poverty is to increase full-time jobs (this study only includes those making exactly $7.25 an hour as minimum wage workers, biasing the results towards those who are just starting minimum wage jobs).
This reflects the mentality of most Republicans, echoed perfectly by Rush Limbaugh: "If you want a 'living wage,' if you don't like what fast food restaurants pay, then do something else. It's just that simple. Go to a trade school. Go to another business. Start your own business."
Limbaugh is making the same mistake I made when I was 15. He views a life in poverty — the life of 15 percent of our citizens (and even more minorities, women, and children)—as a choice. This "free choice" ethos is fundamental to many conservative ideologies, including those involving homosexuality, homelessness and poverty.
I understand their loyalty to freedom — America is the "sweet land of liberty" after all — but this obsession is bordering on unbalanced fetishism. Choice is the greatest thing ever, except for when it's not – like a woman choosing to be her family's breadwinner.
The truth is that every choice is made within a context, and both are very important.
An extreme example: when a robber holds a gun to my head and says, "Your money or your life," he offers me a choice. Certainly, though, the choice between handing over my wallet and leaving my brain on the street is not a free one.
In the same way, my choice when choosing to work for minimum wage is between buying large or small popcorn at the movies. My coworker's choice was between eating and going hungry. Is her choice as free as mine? Is her choice to work for minimum wage instead of going to trade school or starting her own business "just that simple"?
No, a minimum wage increase is not a great answer to these problems. Employers will cut jobs and cut hours. If we wanted to solve poverty, we'd ensure that all of these people have real equal opportunity – by truly equal education – and real bargaining power with their employers (probably via unions).
But for now, a raising of the minimum wage is the only choice available to the 7.6 million people working at low-paying jobs. It's a cure for a symptom from a much deeper illness.
Maybe it's not the best choice, but it's their only free one.
Evan Ford is a junior in philosophy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.