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My family had to survive on the minimum wage, but I’m not ready to pay $15 an hour

McDonald's worker prepares french fries to go.
Getty Images
McDonald's worker prepares french fries to go.

Nineteen states are raising their minimum wage in 2017—and that means a renewal of the debate on whether or not a higher minimum wage actually benefits or harms workers.

It's a debate that takes me back to my childhood.

In some ways, we felt rich when my mom earned the minimum wage working the breakfast shift at McDonald's. My brother and I could eat pancakes any time we wanted, and the manager always gave us the newest Happy Meal toys. I also had my birthday party at Mickey D's, which in my understanding of the world at the time was a luxury normally reserved for the super-wealthy.

As far as I knew, Michael Jordan's kids probably had their birthday parties at McDonald's.

Peggy McKissen's kids did not—at least until she donned the brown uniform of a 1980s McDonald's employee.

So, life on the minimum wage had its moments, but for the most part, it was a hard way to live. I remember my mom talking about the way her hair smelled like French fries, and how difficult or even cruel customers could be. I also remember how McDonald's wasn't her only job—she also delivered newspapers in the afternoon.

My mom didn't support our family on two jobs people typically associate with teenagers because she was lazy, or because she hadn't figured out how to find her bootstraps and pull herself up by them. My dad actually made decent money as a well-driller when my brother and I were born, but he lost his job after a back injury he suffered lifting a pipe.

In a town hit hard by the early Reagan-era farm recession, there were few options for my mom, who until that point had done one job: she raised my brother and me.

So, as a 30-year-old woman with two kids and a husband who couldn't work, she got a job on the morning shift at McDonald's, serving Egg McMuffins to the same people she had gone to high school with.

She wasn't the picture often painted of the minimum wage earner. She wasn't a teenager. And she didn't lack ambition. In fact, she was doing something our society says it admires: going to work, and doing whatever she could to support a family that needed her.

My mom died a few years ago, but I think of her—of a grown woman never able to completely scrub the smell of French fries out of her hair—every time I read an argument against raising the minimum wage that basically comes down to two points:

1. All minimum wage earners are teenagers, or

2. Most minimum wage earners are teenagers, but the ones who aren't are suffering from their own lack of ambition, skill, or both.

"My mom was just doing her best to take care of her family when she was earning the minimum wage. I'm just doing the best I can to take care of my family and am concerned a $15 minimum wage might impact my ability to do that."

I know that's not true based on the data—but I also know that's not true because my family lived it.

At the same time, my personal position on the minimum wage is more complex. As a business owner, I pay three employees. Not all of them make $15 an hour, and if I were required to pay all of my employees $15 per hour, I would have to seriously consider whether I could continue to afford them.

A year ago—before my company experienced growth—I simply would have had to let those employees go.

That's not because my wife and I are living like Saudi Arabian sheiks, and are reluctant to share the wealth. I pay my employees as much as I can possibly pay them for the value they deliver and would love to pay them more, but I simply can't.

Like my family's experience making ends meet on the minimum wage, I can show you data that says an increase in the minimum wage can result in fewer jobs at small businesses like mine.

But I also know that story because I live it every day.

Many minimum wage earners are adults doing whatever they can to feed themselves and their families.

Minimum wage increases do have an impact on jobs at small businesses like mine.

Both of these statements are true, and do not cancel each other out.

Yet, they get shouted at each other by both sides of the minimum wage debate as if they do cancel each other out.

Raising the national minimum wage will require both sides of the debate to do something almost impossible to do in our current political environment: recognize there are valid points on both sides, and work to find a solution somewhere in the middle.

My mom was just doing her best to take care of her family when she was earning the minimum wage. I'm just doing the best I can to take care of my family and am concerned a $15 minimum wage might impact my ability to do that.

If we start the debate from a place that acknowledges one truth doesn't cancel another truth out, maybe we can actually get something done.

Commentary by Dustin McKissen, the founder and CEO of McKissen + Company, a strategy, marketing, and public relations firm based in St. Charles, Missouri. He was named one of LinkedIn's "Top Voices" in 2015 and 2016, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Organizational and Industrial Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @DMcKissen.

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