The History of the Minimum Wage

In 1906, an American Catholic, Father John Ryan, would publish “A Living Wage.” Its arguments are now familiar. “That baneful heritage of the eighteenth century, the doctrine that a minimum of state regulation of industry means a maximum of industrial freedom for the individual, no longer counts any considerable number of adherents,” he wrote. “Negatively, liberty is absence of restraint; positively, it is the power to act and to enjoy…. As an abstract proposition, the State has both the right and the duty to compel all employers to pay a Living Wage…. its task is not merely to provide men with the opportunities that are absolutely essential to right living, but also to furnish as far as practicable the conditions of wider and fuller life.”

Most Americans of that era thought differently.

In 1912, Massachusetts enacted America’s first minimum wage law, but it only applied to women and children. Unlike men, they were deemed weak, and in need of protection from employers. As an empirical matter, their wages were much lower and their working conditions more dismal.

In The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf got stuck in a historical k-hole looking at the sexist fight that brought the minimum wage to the U.S., which started off as a way to protect women and children, even though men resisted it because they believed unions could get them more money by bargaining with states.

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