Dean Minnich: Middle class engine needs stoking

Minimum wage is nice, if it doesn't eliminate opportunity.

My first job was with United Airlines as an office clerk. I was still in my teens, and my credentials for the job were a high school diploma showing I had completed the usual number of years in public school and could type, keep books and write and speak the English language, all of which were debated by several of my North Carroll High teachers.

United paid me $309 a month to start, less than the minimum wage paid the union guys who cleaned up the bathrooms on the airplanes. But I got to wear a dress shirt and tie and work in an air-conditioned office, and on forays through the airport on lunch breaks I might run into a former president, movie actors or the entire Baltimore Orioles baseball team, not to mention the flirty redhead who worked at the lunch counter.

Out of the $309, my share of the rent with three other guys in a two-bedroom apartment in Arbutus was $40 a month. As I matured, it occurred to me that the entire rent for the apartment was probably $40 a month, but I considered it an investment in my continuing education.

Gas was 28 cents a gallon at Sunoco, but my '55 Ford V-8 drank fuel like John Wayne hit the Wild Turkey, so it was a good idea to stop commuting to the airport from Manchester.

Some of my cash was going to University of Baltimore night classes, where I took some business law, economics and journalism classes - my continuing education - and when the opportunity presented itself to learn to write on the job, I left the airline and went to work for a small daily newspaper bureau in Westminster.

I took a $20 a week cut in pay to begin my new career.

My bride of three months was in her second year of college, but we'd make do on $79 a week. Again, I considered it an investment in my continuing education - my future.

Two years later, my future was military service, so I enlisted as a Navy journalist. The job plan worked out, but my pay dropped to about $33 every two weeks.

If you're charting my income growth, you're probably wondering if my next move was to get sent to prison after a botched holdup, but I managed to survive the service and returned to my old job at the paper, where they proudly announced they would pay me $125 a week. I thought that was big bucks, but inflation had set in while I was overseas.

I chalked it up to another investment in my continuing education.

A year later, they promoted me to editor of the local bureau and raised my pay to $155 a week. I thought that was pretty good, so we bought a house. Then I learned that cashiers at the local supermarket got paid more than that.

And my wife got pregnant with our first child.

I was really getting quite an education by now, so when we were expecting a second child, I finally went to work for a big city paper - for almost double what I had made in Westminster.

But parking in Baltimore was about $40 a month, and that was the first year of the gas shortages, when commuters lined up in hopes of getting a few gallons before they shut down the pumps, and gas prices soared.

I had several promotions and raises, but after a couple of years, it was worth a $3,000 per year cut in pay to return to working nearer home, coaching youth sports, living life instead of driving through it and listening to talk shows on the car radio.

That was a big step in my education, which continues.

There's a debate going on about income inequality and raising the minimum wage, but that's treating a symptom and not the problem.

Once upon a time, the middle class was the definition of American opportunity. Today, a person who starts at the bottom, even with a degree, has fewer choices, less opportunity.

Somewhere along the line, stoking the middle class engine became less important in American business than creating more wealth at the top by paying big dividends to investors, and success is now defined by absurdly high bonuses to those who know how to milk the cow dry.

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