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I had hardly finished shopping for Halloween candy when I noticed that stores had already begun stocking the shelves for the Christmas season. And now, in the few days since the Thanksgiving holiday, we've survived Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday, with sales designed to get us to spend and spend.

The three business days after Thanksgiving saw more than 140 million shoppers flooding shopping centers, malls and the Internet hunting for bargains. According to CNN, shoppers spent about $423 each this year, making total spending for the weekend around $59.1 billion.

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Consumer spending gets retailers in the black. Our economy is built around money moving and on people buying more than the bare essentials. Most holiday spending is discretionary, that is, not for essential items. Happily, most of us have enough to spend some small or large amount on things other than food, clothes and shelter. But far too many families max out their credit cards on expensive gifts. The working poor are especially hard-pressed this time of year. More than one in seven families live below the poverty line; for the 50 million Americans living in poverty, 10 million of whom are children, the holiday season is a very difficult time of year.

The poverty line for a family of four is around $23,000 per year. One in four American workers is paid less than $10 per hour. That means it is impossible for a family with a single low-wage earner (or two part-time minimum-wage workers) to make ends meet without some form of assistance, like food stamps or welfare benefits. Many of America's largest retailers, among them corporate giant Walmart, squeeze their employees by paying them low wages and refusing to hire them for full-time work to avoid having to provide health insurance.

These modern-day Scrooges cost taxpayers – that's you and me – more than $6.2 billion in public assistance. And by the way, Walmart makes an estimated $16 billion in corporate profits, all of which goes to the Walton family, which is worth an estimated $145 billion. That's why Black Friday protests are staged at Walmart stores across the country.

In addition to Walmart, the fast food industry also costs taxpayers billions of dollars. More than 52 percent of the families of fast food workers receive some form of public assistance. According to a study released last year by the UC Berkeley Labor Center, the public – you and I – provide more than $7 billion in public assistance to fast food workers. About $5 billion of that goes for food stamps and Medicaid. Another significant chunk, almost $2 billion, goes for earned income tax credits.

These companies and many more like them evade their responsibilities to their employees at the expense of the taxpaying public. That just is not right.

Those who call themselves conservatives say they want to cut government spending. Here's a simple way to do so. Raise the minimum wage and index it to inflation. In 1968, the minimum was $1.60, about $10.94 in 2014 dollars. Raising the minimum wage would benefit the country in many ways. It would close the gap between earnings and the poverty line, reducing pressure on the Treasury for public assistance to the tune of an estimated $4 billion in welfare and food stamps. It would stimulate economic recovery by putting more disposable income in the pockets of the working poor. When people can afford to buy more, they do, resulting in more employment. Several studies have shown that states where minimum wages have gone up have enjoyed faster economic recovery from the Great Recession.

And companies that offer better wages to their employees also benefit by having less turnover, better employee morale, more productivity and no damage to their bottom line: if McDonald's raised minimum wages to $10.10 and passed the labor costs through to consumers, the price of a Big Mac would go up by a dime.

One of the best Christmas gifts America could give itself is to help Americans achieve prosperity, and the best way to achieve that is with a living wage.

Mitch Edelman writes from Finksburg. Email him at mjemath@gmail.com

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