What Dave Ramsey’s Personal Finance Advice Can Teach Us About the Minimum Wage Debate

A few weeks ago I was listening to the Dave Ramsey radio show and I heard him take a call from a young man who was struggling with a low-paying job and two kids he had to support all on his own. I was impressed with Dave’s advice.

Dave counseled the caller on a few short-term things he could do to try to improve his situation, but stressed that over the long term he had to get his income up. Above all, Dave said, the young man had to become a reader: he had to spend less time watching TV and more time acquiring the knowledge necessary to make his services worth more on the job market. Dave even sent him a box full of books to get him started.

Here’s what struck me most about the conversation: If Dave was not a personal finance guy, but a political policy guy like I am, he would have been accused of hard-heartedly “blaming the victim.”

In fact he was treating the young man with respect.

Contrast Dave’s advice with the advice that would have come from the policy wonks and politicians who claim to represent low-income Americans: You are trapped in a low-paying, dead-end job and anyone who says there are things you should do to get a better job is fooling himself and insulting you. Getting a better job is outside of your control. You should wait for Washington to increase the minimum wage, to create more tax-funded day care programs, and to expand welfare programs.

Do you think that Dave’s caller would’ve been better off being told he was a helpless victim who needed to wait for other people to bail him out?

The simple fact is that in America today, even with all of the government barriers to success, you can make something of yourself regardless of where you start. No one is trapped in a low-paying job. No, I’m not saying it’s necessarily your fault if you only earn $7.25 an hour. What I am saying is that even if it’s not your fault, becoming successful is your responsibility. No one can or should do it for you. The world doesn’t owe any of us a living.

“But Don, you just don’t get it. The game is rigged. For all intents and purposes, millions of Americans are stuck in minimum wage jobs.” In this interesting article, the always-insightful personal finance guru J.D. Roth lays out a bunch of strategies for escaping the minimum wage. Quoting Roth:

    • Work two jobs. If debt or living expenses are keeping you down, take a second job. This may not help you escape from minimum wage in the short-term, but it will alleviate some of the financial pressure you’re facing, which will eventually allow you to focus on long-terms solutions.
    • Seek a promotion. Find a way to advance in your current job. What would it take for you to move into some sort of management position? What about moving to another department where the pay is better? Be the sort of employee that managers can’t live without: show up on time, be efficient, do quality work. Watch for advancement opportunities with your current employer.
    • Change companies. If there’s no path to higher income at your current job, what about a similar job with another company? Not all employers have the same pay structure. Scout the competition, and see if they can offer a better opportunity.
    • Change professions. You may need to leave your current field altogether. If you’re working at the counter in a convenience store, you’re better off taking another line of work. What sorts of jobs are you qualified for? “None,” you might say, but many employers need unskilled laborers. An unskilled laborer who shows up for work on time, is agreeable, and makes an effort will usually be earning more than minimum wage in just a few months.
    • Steer clear of corporate giants. As a small business owner, I’m biased against big corporations. Publicly held companies have huge motivations to keep worker wages and benefits low. It’s true that your top-end advancement may be limited with a small business, but they’re generally more flexible than corporate giants. Many small business owners go out of their way to look out for their best employees.
    • Educate yourself. Finally — and most importantly — do what you can to increase your education and marketability. Make yourself appealing to employers. Develop skills that they can use.

This sort of common-sense call for self-reliance is disturbingly absent from our political debates. Your life is your responsibility. If you want to make more money it’s your job to develop the knowledge and skills that will make people eager to pay you more.