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Executive View: Climbing that First Job Rung

4 minute read
Marshall Loeb

Executive View/Marshall Loeb

Because he teaches at Temple University, just eight scabrous blocks from where he was raised as the son of a housemaid and a man who left when the boy was three, Walter Williams jokes that he never really broke out of the Philadelphia slums. As a kid, he drifted. He determined to make something of himself only when he was leaving the Army. Married, broke and 25, Williams drove a Yellow Cab, saved some money, went to California and invested the next ten years in study. “When I first attempted the written exam for a Ph.D. in economics at U.C.L.A., 17 people took it, and 15 flunked. I was among the 15.” Williams earned his doctorate the second time around. Says he: “I’m glad that I got most of my education before it became fashionable for white people to give special treatment to black people.”

An authority on blacks and jobs, Economist Williams, 43, is much in demand to write articles, give speeches, testify before Congress. The New Year finds him depressed, for a particular reason: on Jan. 1 the federal minimum wage went up from $2.90 to $3.10 an hour. In Williams’ view, the rising minimum guarantees maximum unemployment for the young and unskilled, particularly blacks.

Almost all economists agree that hundreds of thousands of people cannot land jobs because their work is not worth the minimum wage. Williams calculates that this year’s 7% increase in the minimum wage will cause unemployment among low-skilled black teen-agers to rise from 35% to at least 40%. He sees evidence all around: “How else do you explain the massive change from waiter service to self-service in restaurants? How else do you explain the absence of ushers in movies and youngsters at supermarkets to take your bags to the car? We have cut the bottom rungs off the economic ladder, and the consequence is that for the first time in U.S. history, we have developed a permanent welfare class.”

At very least, says Williams, the wage law should be amended to provide youth differential, allowing employers to pay people under 20 less than the federal minimum. This would create no hardship because almost all people on the minimum wage are unmarried or part-time employees; no more than one-half of 1% are responsible for supporting a family.

More heretically, Williams believes that “child labor laws should be reexamined. Back in the 1930s, they protected young people from working in cold and damp or dangerous mines. Today these same laws protect them from working in air-conditioned offices. If a 14-year-old is not benefiting from school, perhaps he should be allowed to leave and get work in a car wash. Perhaps then he will discover he cannot get ahead without an education, and that lesson in life will motivate him to return to school.”

Williams also favors adopting the European-style apprentice system, in which young people work at relatively low wages for several years as assistants to skilled plumbers, carpenters or other craftsmen, learning their trade. Another way to help minorities onto that crucial first rung of the career ladder would be to ease or eliminate state licensing laws that keep many occupations tight and closed. Williams is appalled that “roughly 600 occupations are licensed in the U.S. In some states you need a license to be a cosmetologist or a landscaper. To become a commercial photographer in Texas, you need a negative Wassermann test.” Says Williams: “Our founding fathers thought that a man had a right to practice his trade without going to the feudal lord or the king to ask permission. But we have built the same system that our founding fathers sought to escape.”

In sum, Government has passed many laws designed to help the lowest-skilled worker but has actually hurt him. Says Williams: “The whole process was aptly described in the play Green Pastures. God remarks to the angels, ‘That’s always the trouble with miracles. When you pass one, you always gotta r’ar back and pass another.'” What is required is less miracle-making legislation. Or, as Williams puts it, “Black people do not need any special programs. All they need is for Government to get off their backs.”

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