UNL students meet Obama’s minimum wage proposal with economic questions

 By Riley Johnson, News Net Nebraska

Edwin Owusu-Ansah has a lighter workload this semester, but only because he moved back in with his parents. Last year, he had to work more than 25 hours per week to pay the bills.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln student works two jobs in addition to studying biological systems engineering. For Campus Recreation, he supervises intramural sports referees for $10 an hour. At the University Bookstore, Owusu-Ansah earns $7.25, minimum wage, as a cashier, working at least 13 hours a week.

“I don’t know what I would have to do if I had to pay rent,” Owusu-Ansah said.

He’s one of more than 3.8 million workers nationwide working at or below the Federal minimum hourly wage of $7.25, according to 2011 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama proposed raising the federal minimum wage to $9 by the end of 2015.

“Tonight, let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour,” Obama said. “This single step would raise the incomes of millions of working families.”

Though targeted at aiding lower-income families, the president’s proposal would likely affect the earnings and hours for workers under 25, who make up about half of those paid the minimum wage or less, according to government statistics.

Economists nationwide remain divided on whether raising the minimum wage would adversely affect employment.

Sam Allgood, the Edwin J. Faulkner professor of economics at UNL, said he sides with the economists who believe a small change would not harm employment levels.

“The president’s proposal was not a small change,”  said Allgood, a labor economist who worked a minimum wage  grocery bagging job at a Piggly Wiggly in Georgia when he was a teenager.

Obama’s proposal would raise the minimum wage about 24 percent, which Allgood said would weed out many unskilled labor positions such as cashiers or grocery baggers. Many minimum wage employees could see their hours cut.

In defense of the proposal, the White House has cited research showing “no detectable employment losses” from previous minimum wage hikes in the United States.

To say a 24 percent change isn’t going to have a large effect on employment is “probably unrealistic,” Allgood said.

Chelsey Garner, a freshman economics major, isn’t sure how raising the minimum wage would affect the U.S. economy.

Garner works as a shelver at UNL’s Love Library for just above the minimum wage, $7.75, and also as a night clerk in Abel Residence Hall for minimum wage. Her income helps her get by month-to-month, she said.

Under the president’s proposal, Garner said she wouldn’t have to work both jobs or as many hours under both jobs. But she could see how this could mean many other people lose their jobs if employers have to pay their employees more.

“It would be nice for me, but you have to look at what’s best for the economy and the nation,” she said.

Alex Maycher, a first-year political science graduate student, backs Obama’s proposal.

“With the rising costs with goods and everything, I think it’s a good thing,” Maycher said.

This semester, Maycher works between 20 and 25 hours as a cashier at the Information Desk in the Nebraska Union. He’s worked at minimum wage as a deliveryman for Pickleman’s in Lincoln and as a janitor on campus.

He disputes the argument that raising the minimum wage would mean fewer jobs. Instead, Maycher said he thinks the hike could spur consumer spending because those working full-time at the minimum wage would have higher earnings.

Maycher doubts such a proposal could make it through a divided, partisan Congress though.

“I don’t think it has a chance,” he said.

Should the president raise the minimum wage, Owusu-Ansah said his life would be a little more comfortable. He could prioritize school more instead of having to work to pay bills.

As for the president’s priorities, Owusu-Ansah doesn’t think the country is in desparate need of a new minimum wage.

“Although I would love it if my pay tomorrow were $9 instead of $7.25, I don’t think raising the minimum wage should be the utmost importance for President Obama,” he said.

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