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Raise the Minimum Wage for a healthy future

I can keep him alive, but can't help him learn
Catherine Hill

Chill penury repressed their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul

(Thomas Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard)

Apparently, Gray was onto something. A couple of new studies, performed in different countries, prove his point. From a practical standpoint, if we don’t want ‘chill penury’ to chill our future, we’d better raise the minimum wage.

The practical proof showed up in an eight-year longitudinal study started in 1993 in the Great Smokey Mountains, an area divided between North Carolina and Tennessee. Many people in this area suffer from chronic poverty, The study recruited 1,420 children – 25% Native American, 7.5% black, and the rest white – and gave them psychiatric exams every year. Nobody was particularly surprised when the poor children had approximately 60% more problems than middle class kids.

What surprised everybody was the effect of the 1996 opening of the Eastern Band of Cherokee’s gambling casino. Now, Native Americans got a cash supplement, and there was a trust fund for the children. The economic gain to the Cherokees wasn’t much - $6,000 a year per family at its highest – but the Cherokee children started testing like they’d never been exposed to poverty. Misconduct and oppositional defiance disorders were now down to the rates of middle class kids. The young Cherokees were suddenly less likely to commit a crime and more likely to graduate from high school. A lift out of poverty – miniscule by Pentagon budget standards – was all that it took.

Meanwhile, a group of economists in India gave a battery of cognitive tests to Indian sugar farmers before and after the harvest. The only real difference was that the farmers were poor before the harvest and at least temporarily richer afterward. Researchers discovered this period of poverty resulted in the loss of 13 IQ points – the same effect as missing a full night’s sleep or chronic alcoholism.

Two of the researchers proposed a metaphor to help us understand the dramatic difference. They call it bandwidth. Most of us can grasp the idea of a human brain having only a finite amount of bandwidth. If the brain has to spend a lot of bandwidth dealing with poverty, there’s not that much left for growth and development.

49.7 million Americans are now living below the poverty line. If the Indian sucgar cane farmers are a fair sample, all these folks could experience a 13 IQ point gain if their basic needs were met. Their children would have fewer of the behavioral disorders that trouble us in schools. What’s to dislike?

Oh, I forgot. A raise in the minimum wage would change the established order of things, and we can’t have that.

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