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.