The ‘Minimum Wage’ as a way to make ‘defectives stand out’ for possible eugenic selection, 1913

Henry R. Seager, “The Minimum Wage as Part of a Program for Social Reform.” 1913. [SOURCE]

As the enumeration of these benefits suggests, important reform to accompany minimum wage be comprehensive provision for industrial and trade education vocational guidance. Starvation wages are due frequently to exploitation, frequently to physical, mental and moral defects in the workers, but most commonly to the fact that the untrained, unambitious and inefficient recipients are not worth living wages to their employers. If organized society is going to decree that in future no worker shall continue to be employed at less than living wages, undoubtedly some of the least efficient and capable will be promptly discharged. To justify the procedure, organized society must at the same time perfect the free public educational system so as to enable boys and girls actually to earn living wages. This cannot be done in a day but every step toward training boys and girls for the work which they are to undertake and guiding them wisely in the choice of their occupations is a step supplemental to a successful minimum wage regulation. Just as there are special schools in the public school system for children who are backward with their books, so there must be developed industrial and trade schools for young persons who are so backward in their work that they cannot command even the minimum wages which the law prescribes. And it will not be enough to provide such schools. Young persons incapable of adequate self support and without independent resources will have to be assisted while they are taking advantage of them. Moreover, if on completing the course they are still unable to earn an adequate living, they will have to be treated as defectives for whom still further measures must be taken. If their defects are of a sort that render them entirely harmless members of the community they may be given licenses to work for less than the minimum wage required for normal persons. If there are reasons for isolating them from contact with others, then they must be sent to farm or industrial colonies where they will be considerately and humanely cared for but under conditions that prevent them from inflicting injury on others. Critics of the minimum wage sometimes speak of this necessity which the plan presents of making special provision for the unemployable as if it were a new problem. It is not a new problem. We already have individuals who are physically or mentally or morally defective and we already try more or less adequately to care for them. The operation of a minimum wage requirement would merely extend the definition of defectives to embrace all individuals, who even after having received special training, remain incapable of adequate self-support. Such persons are already social dependents. The plan merely compels them to stand out clearly in their true character, and enables them to receive that special consideration which their situation calls for.

One important part of the program with reference to those who are defective from birth is to prevent that monstrous crime against future generations involved in permitting them to become the fathers and mothers of children who must suffer under the same handicap. If we are to maintain a race that is to be made up of capable, efficient and independent individuals and family groups we must courageously cut off lines of heredity that have been proved to be undesirable by isolation or sterilization of the congenitally defective. Michigan has just passed an act requiring the sterilization of congenital idiots. This may seem somewhat remote from the minimum wage but such a policy judiciously extended should make easier the task of each on-coming generation which insists that every individual who is regularly employed in the competitive labor market shall receive at least a living wage for his work. We cannot continue to increase the sums we spend for the care of congenital defectives in consequence of our failure to prevent them from becoming the parents of more congenital defectives without encroaching on the expenditures we ought to make for the better education and training of the normal children of normal citizens.

Next to social insurance and industrial education the measures most needed to supplement minimum wage regulations are protective labor laws of the kind with which we are already quite familiar. Children must be protected from employment until they have attained the physical and mental growth necessary to enable them to stand the strain and the temptations of industrial life. Our progressive states now set the period at which they may begin work at fourteen. As we add facilities for industrial and trade training to our public school system we may well advance it, perhaps to sixteen. After entering industries children must be protected from excessive hours and dangerous employments till they have attained full development. Similar protective measures are needed by women and even by men in trades where they are not able to safe-guard their own interests through organization. All these protective regulations are designed to promote the health and efficiency of the workers benefited, and hence have a direct bearing on their wage-earning capacity. Such protective labor laws try to insure that wage-earners shall carry on their work under conditions favorable to the maintenance of their health, vigor and efficiency. Both are necessary parts of an adequate program of social reform.

The minimum wage is a plan for making more effective the related measures of social reform that have been described. With their aid it should hasten the time when every man, woman and child who is gainfully employed would receive enough to be independently self-supporting. This does not mean that it will usher in the millenium. The minimum wage is as the phrase implies a bare living wage. Insisting that such a wage be paid to every worker will not directly affect the wages of most workers. In the United States the great majority command living wages already. […]

[emphasis added by post editor.]


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