Abstract: Speaking Truth to Public Officials: Arguments for Raising the Minimum Wage (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Speaking Truth to Public Officials: Arguments for Raising the Minimum Wage

Wednesday, January 20, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Sandra Wexler, PhD, Consultant, University of Pittsburgh
Rafael Engel, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Background and Purpose: The Fight for $15 focused attention on raising the minimum wage and has led to advocacy at local, state, and national levels as well as with private employers. Social workers play important roles in advancing arguments for increasing wages. Drawing on the claims-making literature, we look at how experts and low-wage workers try to influence policy makers’ definitions of and responses to demands for raising the minimum wage. We consider the arguments offered by experts and workers to be claims embodying conceptualizations of “fairness” and explore the strategies used to package these claims.

Methods: In 2015, the Pittsburgh City Council’s Wage Review Committee heard testimony from 156 hospital service workers and 17 experts (e.g., social work academics/researchers, agency directors/community activists, and union leaders) about the situation of low-wage workers in healthcare. The Committee’s final report, including the testimonies, is available online.

We used a qualitative descriptive approach, which emphasizes staying close to the everyday language of the data, making content analysis an appropriate analytic choice. Four coders reviewed the expert and worker testimonies separately to generate an initial list of codes. These were refined through an iterative process of application, discussion, and consensus. The final coding schemes identified four primary themes related to fairness for the expert testimonies and four others for the worker testimonies.

Results: Hospital service workers and experts represent two distinct constituencies. Each can be considered a different type of “claims-makers,” offering distinct arguments for raising the minimum wage.

Hospital service workers’ claims were based on their lived experience. Fairness was rooted in their understanding of the nature and value of the work they performed as well as in commonly held beliefs – the myths of our culture that say, for example, that hard work will be rewarded. Testifying offered them an opportunity to speak directly to those in power, and they did so with a passion that came from talking about the challenges and triumphs of their own lives.

The experts linked fairness to macroeconomic (e.g., impacts on the local economy), moral (e.g., obligations inherent in social contracts), and social and economic justice (e.g., historic discrimination, inequality) rationales. Often they interwove strands of these arguments such as balancing claims based on economic justice with those rooted in moral reasoning. They cited data and statistics, with charts and tables to substantiate their assertions. They were not without passion, but it was the appeal of advocates advancing claims on behalf of others.

Conclusions and Implications: Deconstructing how experts and workers formulate claims holds important implications for social work practice and education. As social workers engaged in advocacy, we need to understand our audiences and shape our arguments accordingly. What appeals to business leaders may differ from what moves public officials. Putting a human face on data, by empowering clients/constituents to tell their own stories or by incorporating their information into our narratives, allows our advocacy to reach decision makers’ hearts and minds, potentially enhancing our efforts’ effectiveness.