Why does the government exist? It's an age old question, one that philosophers, thinkers, and politicians have sought to answer since the dawn of civilization. The common answer, or at least the one which most Americans will likely accept, is that the state's main purpose is to safeguard its citizens, protect their rights and shield them from harm. Such a definition, largely accurate and embraced, is also dreadfully vague. Almost anything can be interpreted as a threat to the common welfare —foreign powers, domestic strife, sugary foods, extraterrestrial invasions—meaning that the government's role (as perceived by the public) was ever expanding.
The simplistic purpose the government was supposed to serve rapidly grew to incorporate almost every aspect of life. If a person couldn't afford to live in the town they wanted to, the government provided them with affordable housing. If a mother decided her child was going to have chocolate at lunch, the government stepped in, overrode parental authority and provided a nutritious meal.
If a minor tried to purchase a violent video-game, the government assured their hallowed eyes would never be tainted by the graphic display of virtual violence and forbade the transaction. Uncle Sam shed his role as the vanguard of Natural Law, an entity whose purpose is to assure everyone experienced life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness unabated, and became the country's babysitter.
All social problems, most of which were caused by the state anyway, became the government's duty to solve. The cries to eliminate poverty, or at least level the playing field, filled state legislatures from coast to coast. Over the years, dozens of politicians responded to these demands and attempted to use the government's hand to strangle the neck of poverty. None have been anywhere near successful, however, and every effort to legislate aridity out of existence, be it Franklin Roosevelt's “New Deal” or Lyndon Johnson's “Great Society,” has proven futile; the ensuing social advances were fleeting. That hasn't stopped lawmakers from repackaging their flawed beliefs in new guises, however, and today's legislators market the same solutions and misrepresentations of economic functioning that failed the American people in past generations. Sadly, whereas one would hope that after more than half a century of government expansion, increased taxation and industrial decline, Americans would recognize that government is a perennial problem and never a solution, New Jersey's elected officials have decided to once again try and convince voters they can solve the tragedy of poverty...all it will take is a little more government power!
The latest in the line of progressive gimmicks is Assembly Speaker Shelia Oliver's demand that the minimum wage be raised to $8.50, an increase proponents claim would stimulate the economy and provide working class residents with increased disposable income. While this policy certainly looks good on paper—there isn't a person alive who wouldn't like to help poor and working class families enjoy better living conditions—the route that Oliver plans to take will be detrimental not only to the state's economy, but also the very same families she hopes to help.
Mandatory higher wages would prove disastrous to those who are currently unemployed and seeking work. Small business owners, many of whom operate on a fixed budget, will be less apt to take on new employees if they are forced to increase their existing staff's pay. In a state as hostile to businesses as New Jersey, which has been plagued by the mass exodus of residents and businesses to Pennsylvania and Delaware, making the private sector an even more difficult terrain for businesses would only serve to finally push the remaining holdouts, those who weathered the storm of government oppression, over the border. Thus, there would be even less jobs readily available for residents of the Garden State; those unable to afford the daily commute across state lines will have a much greater time locating work domestically.
Higher pay also means higher costs in stores because employers will have to compensate for the loss in profit they sustain paying labor to undertake tasks that previously cost less. If as supermarket has to pay its employees a dollar more per hour, they cannot be expected to operate off the same revenue as before the wage increase. The prices of the assorted merchandise in a store is not chosen at random, the end goal is always to make a profit. Thus, the price of a loaf of bred, gallon of milk, or stick of gum will be inflated. Once again, consumers aren't going to want to shell out even more of their hard earned money in New Jersey for products that cost significantly less elsewhere; businesses in neighboring states will reap the benefits of Oliver's plan while the Garden State suffers.
The inflation doesn't end there, however, as business owners can also expect a chain reaction that will result in wage increases for all workers. Those who work in hourly jobs that pay above the minimum wage, often those that require some form of prior certification or specialized training, will not want to see the gap between their income and their unskilled counterparts' close. They will be wholly justified in demanding that their wages also be increased to mirror the state-mandated spike and to better reflect the value of their work. Therein lies the main issue, a truth that Shelia Oliver has chosen to ignore: how much an individual is paid is based upon the perceived value of the service and the availability of those who are qualified and able to effectively perform the job. You simply can't artificially manipulate the system.
The entire push to raise the minimum wage likely has less than noble motivations; higher wages means more revenue for the state through payroll taxes. More taxes means less available funds to hire new employees, which results in more people on government assistance programs, all of which are funded by taxes. The circle of dependence continues, just like both political parties want it to.
So how can poverty be eliminated? It can never be entirely destroyed, but its impact could be lessened if the government simply got out of the way. Lower taxes would mean increased jobs, more personal spending money, and a healthier economy. Less restrictions on businesses would result in greater innovation, mass employment, and renewed confidence. Keep the minimum wage where it is and let the market determine how much everyone makes. Let the government act as the safety net, not the parent. New Jersey has spent the last several years on the brink of economic ruin, the victim of foolhardy progressive policies. Speaker Oliver's plan is not in the best interest of Garden State residents, and while she may recognize that poverty is a devastating problem that needs to be addressed, she fails to realize one thing: Uncle Sam is a crappy babysitter.