Niagara Gazette

August 1, 2013

HAMILTON: Stable minimum wages and societal progress

By Ken Hamilton
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Our society is not built upon building material or political legacies, nor is it the quest to make everyone’s lives easy, instead, it is built upon strong and stable families that build societies such as they are, and I don’t know if we truly understand that.

With a worried expression on his face, my then-10-year-old baby, Kenny, walked into my study one day and interrupted my writing by saying, “Dad, when you were a kid and you worked on a farm, did you have fun?”

Kenny had remembered the stories that I had told him about my childhood and how my father made us go out to Lombardi’s Lewiston farm to pick apples, peaches and plums, to cut grapes and to pluck tomatoes. We were allowed to keep all of the money that we made — but for school, dad would only buy us two pairs of pants, two shirts, a pair of shoes and three-pack of underwear and socks — the rest was up to us to buy for ourselves.

Because of it, we developed a work ethic and a higher degree of character than what we would have had if we were allowed to do nothing. By working the farm, we took a great deal of pressure off the family finances and thus allowed dad to more easily pay the mortgage so that he kept a roof over our heads and heat in the wintertime.

We learned to work on Lombardi’s farm, and if we wanted more, then we had to work harder. We developed a work ethic, independence and character, things of which Kenneth was then too young to understand, but later developed in other ways.

It astonished me when Kenny asked me the ‘fun’ question. I looked at him and said, “What!”

He then slowly and succinctly asked it again. I looked into his dark and concerned eyes and then asked, “What makes you think that we had ‘fun’ working on the farm?”

“Exactly,” he said, turning his palms upward and pumping his arms. “Then why do you want me and Chris (my other son) to work on the farm?”

“Because,” I said, and then I went on to reiterate the work ethic, independence and character issues of which you have just read.

Unlike in my case, where my mom had died when we were young, my dad had lost his job and then later obtained one with the city as a garbageman, my children’s parents were dual-income with relatively high paying jobs, and the boys wanted for nothing that they truly needed. But I was careful not to buy them all of the things that they wanted, even if I wanted them to have those same things. Instead of spending my money ‘on’ things for them, I spent my money and time ‘with’ them, taking them to different places and giving them different experiences.

Kenny is now the head chef at the Talara Restaurant, near Baltimore’s inner-harbor waterfront. Christopher is the client satisfaction manager at a Marriot hotel, not far from his brother’s restaurant. Both of them started off with minimum wage jobs; one at retail outlets in the city and the other as a dishwasher and line cook at the great Red Coach Inn near the waterfalls. While they were somewhat content with the minimum wage jobs, they were not content with their minimum wage pay; therefore, they either acquired or practiced the skills that would allow them to move up in both pay and responsibility — and that is a good thing. How did they do it? Here’s how: Every two or three months, I enjoy attending Erie County Medical Center’s Dr. Nasir Khan’s interfaith symposiums. There, he assembles a diversity of some of the area’s most learned clerics to talk about the socio-religious issues that face us. At one that I attended, the subject was relieving world suffering, where I asked Sikh cleric Dr. Mohan Dergun, who was also a Buffalo State College professor, if it was wise to relieve all world suffering. He softly and philosophically replied, “Without suffering, there is no progress.”

You know, he is right, and I think that there is a relationship between the minimum wage and societal progress.

What do you think?

Contact Ken Hamilton at kenhamilton930@aol.com.