Henry Ford’s 150th Birthday

Henry Ford’s 150th birthday was marked on Tuesday with little fanfare. (Did he even earn a Google doodle? Nope.)

He’s been on my mind the past few weeks because of the debate over a few issues: minimum wage and food stamps. Ford believed that workers needed to earn enough to buy the cars they were churning out on his lines. It wasn’t only an economic issue, he believed, but a moral one.

images “The scale of their living — the rate of their wages — determines the prosperity of the country,” he wrote in his autobiography.

What would Ford think of today’s workforce, where millions struggle to get by on a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, while CEO pay is 204 times that of regular workers? I suspect he would be very worried indeed.

Minimum wage workers earn annual gross income of roughly $15,000. It’s a wage that hasn’t increased since 2009. Many of those workers are likely receiving food stamps, which provide an average monthly benefit of $133, in order to put food on the table. (Food stamp recipients aren’t living on champagne and caviar, no matter what some opponents would have you believe.)

But a significant chunk of Americans want to keep minimum wage where it is — or even abolish it — while others (yes, you, House Republicans) are trying to rip the guts out of the food stamp system.

Take a woman in my former book club who shall remain nameless. She’s a wealthy woman, who worked at a big Wall Street firm and retired early, yet begrudged that her taxes went to pay for food stamps, schools, and other benefits that create a civil society. She told our book group, in all seriousness, that if parents can’t feed their kids,”the children should starve.”

It’s an issue that hits home for me. When my sister and I were little, my parents had to go on food stamps for a while. They were just out of college and had no money, with two small children to feed.

Those food stamps went a long way to providing security for my parents, and helped them get on more stable footing. It’s probably one reason why I find myself drawn to write about economic disparities, minimum wage, government spending and other social issues for MSN Money.

That’s the way it should be in a society that values helping the less fortunate, with the belief that one day those people will do their part in helping someone else.

And I believe that most Americans support this idea. This morning, I wrote about a poll for MSN Money that found 80% of Americans support a higher minimum wage.  That’s reassuring, but even more to learn that the majority of Republicans also support paying a fairer wage (even though $10.10 isn’t a livable wage in many communities.)

Regardless what you think about minimum wage and government benefits, it’s worth mulling Ford’s message. A fair wage, he wrote, isn’t static: “Our high wages of to-day may be low wages ten years from now.”

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One response to “Henry Ford’s 150th Birthday

  1. Henry Ford was free to pay his employees what he thought they were worth, and at a rate that would enable him to run and grow his company. We all should commend him for his success. However, I doubt very seriously that he started a company as a means to create jobs, and I don’t think your comments using him as a role model are appropriate. Each business is different, and the formulas used need to be tailored to each’s needs. We have seen the results of the auto industry’s efforts to be employee-centric in the bailouts and need for taxpayers to foot the bill for such unwise strategies. The free market system works best when it is not encumbered by requirements imposed on it by well-meaning folks who have no “skin in the game”.

    It is easy for critics to make demands of an employer who is just barely making ends meet, especially when it will not be them filing for bankruptcy and losing all they have created. As far as your poll goes, I don’t believe it means anything. If you asked Americans, who are generally economic illiterates, if they would like to be millionaires, I am sure a vast majority would respond to that question in the affirmative too. I am sure you have good intentions, but business decisions ought to be left to the owners and managers, even if they seem to you to be a bit heartless and mercenary.

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