Last week, the Attorney General certified a ballot initiative to increase the Arkansas minimum wage from $6.25 to $8.50 over a three-year period. If polls are any indication, the group behind the worthy measure shouldn't have trouble gathering the necessary 62,000 signatures required to place the measure before voters this November — some 72 percent of respondents last summer said they believed raising the minimum wage was "just the right thing to do," according to the public employee union AFSCME.
When that same survey asked Arkansans if they would be more or less likely to support a candidate who voted for the Affordable Care Act, 55 percent said "less likely." It's not surprising that Arkansans who reflexively hate Obama also heap scorn on Obamacare. But a good number of those same red-tinted voters also support a minimum wage hike. Why?
Public suspicion about the ACA is not unreasonable, especially after the embarrassing caricature of flailing governmental incompetence that accompanied the Healthcare.gov rollout last fall. Although the problems with the federal site are now largely fixed, Obamacare remains an unproven program.
But the real fuel for conservative animosity, as evidenced by a safari into the comments section of any online article about the ACA, isn't about the functionality of the program. It's about handouts, or the idea thereof. It's the image of an outstretched palm (maybe a brown one) grasping for a slice of tax revenue. People don't like the idea of paying workers below a living wage for the same reason they don't like the idea of giving away health care: It insults their sense of justice.
Regardless of ideological affiliation, the majority of America feels deeply that the existing order of things is unfair, that labor and effort have come uncoupled from reward. There's consensus that the country is intolerably rigged in favor of those with power, but profound disagreement about who's winning and who's losing. The sense of frustration and injustice that generates support for a higher minimum wage comes from the same place as populist anger over "takers" who "live off the government."
In reality, of course, takers and workers are one and the same population. As with food stamps, the vast majority of the beneficiaries of ACA subsidies, including those eligible for nearly free coverage under the "private option" Medicaid expansion, do work. Many of them work two or three jobs at more than 50 hours per week and don't have a whisper of health coverage to show for it, relying on free clinics and the ER to address their inevitable medical needs. Many others work part time or are unemployed, because it's damn hard to find a decent job in this economy. But when conservatives visualize who's getting new access to basic health care, they don't see workers; they see takers.
To conservatives, this is about principle more than it is self-interest. Consider another question from the AFSCME survey last summer that asked voters whether raising the minimum wage would increase the cost of goods and services; almost 75 percent said yes (despite the fact that there's no evidence minimum wage hikes adversely affect economic growth). A majority of people think that a minimum wage hike might hurt them a bit, but a majority still thinks it's the right thing to do. Why? Because it seems fair.