Rarely will you ever hear the first question of a presidential debate address people protesting outside. So it's to Fox News anchor Neil Cavuto's credit, I guess, that he began with a question about the protesters from Voces de la Frontera Action, Black Lives Matter, and the Fight for $15 outside in downtown Milwaukee. (Oddly enough, he didn't bring up the protesters in Milwaukee angry about the lack of charges for the cop who killed Dontre Hamilton, an unarmed black man, last year.) Asked if he sympathized with the protesters' demands, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump said that he did not, arguing that raising the minimum wage would not allow us to remain competitive abroad. For his part, Marco Rubio, the U.S. senator from Florida, said, "If you raise the minimum wage, you’re going to make people more expensive than a machine." Alarmist though those two responses were, they were sandwiched by Dr. Ben Carson's whopper of a lie about the minimum wage's effects.
"Every time we raise the minimum wage, the number of jobless people increases," Carson said. This, in and of itself, is debatable. In a 2014 report the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected that, once fully implemented in the second half of 2016, increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 (which President Obama has supported) would reduce total unemployment by about 500,000 workers, or 0.3 percent. He then put the focus upon black workers, particularly young ones. "Only 19.8 percent of black teenagers have a job," he added, a bizarre statement that would imply that more than 80 percent of black teenagers eligible to work do not have a job. It's a lie, of course; the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed a 25.6 percent unemployment rate for black teens between the ages of 16 and 19 in October of this year. From the start, he was so wrong on the math that it disqualified anything that followed. But he continued by arguing that an increase in the minimum wage exacerbates unemployment for African Americans. It's a common argument on the right, and it's rubbish.
At a moment when the unemployment rate for black citizens appears to be holding steady at just over nine percent, nearly double the overall jobless rate, it's a fascinating argument to raise. Though the African American unemployment rate is shockingly high, it signifies real progress: It was 11.5 percent in November of 2008, when President Obama first won election. But Carson's argument, as scary as it sounds in this precarious economic moment for black families left behind in the Obama recovery, is simply untrue.
The CBO, in that same 2014 report, projected that the $10.10 option would raise the average real income of families beneath the poverty threshold by about $300, or 2.8 percent. So even if you don't stereotype all black families as poor—which would be silly—the truth is that black children made up the majority of children younger than 18 living in poverty in 2010. Carson essentially espoused an earlier Republican view that the minimum wage is the "black teenage unemployment act"; yet his opposition to raising it wouldn't help those black teens. As a NewsOne column by Madison Gray argued last year, increasing the minimum wage helps incentivize employment and skill development for jobless African Americans.
Carson, being a political neophyte running on his personal narrative, hearkened back to early lab work he took for little pay and celebrated the professional and life experience that he needed to begin his Horatio Alger trek up the ladder of society. But in doing so, he not only ignores the very real barriers many young black people aspiring to find a job face, and the economic realities that differ from the Detroit home he once knew. The worst part about Carson's argument is that it ignores the true drivers of unemployment and poverty—namely, the exporting of factory jobs, public-sector layoffs, lack of wage increases to keep up with inflation, and a lack of job training. This would assume, naturally, that Carson and his cohort of candidates are interested in recognizing the factors that have driven down the unemployment rate, rather than reinforcing a notion that people who don't have jobs are lazy and dependent upon government largesse. Carson's misrepresentation further underscored the Republican Party's willful ignorance of the plight of black Americans, along with the disregard they have for our intelligence.
This article has been updated.