Early Quotes About Minimum Wage and Employment

Here are seven quotes that reveal how early social reformers viewed the minimum wage and the “unemployable.”

1. “It is much better to enact a minimum-wage law even if it deprives these unfortunates of work. Better that the state should support the inefficient wholly and prevent the multiplication of the breed than subsidize incompetence and unthrift, enabling them to bring forth more of their kind.” 

– Royal Meeker, Princeton scholar and labor commissioner to Woodrow Wilson, as quoted in Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 25

2. “How to deal with the unemployable?” asked economist Frank Taussig. They “should simply be stamped out.”

“We have not reached the stage where we can proceed to chloroform them once and for all; but at least they can be segregated, shut up in refuges and asylums, and prevented from propagating their kind…”

– F. W. Taussig, Principles of Economics, Vol. 1

3. “If the inefficient entrepreneurs would be eliminated [by minimum wages,] so would the ineffective workers. I am not disposed to waste much sympathy upon either class. The elimination of the inefficient is in line with our traditional emphasis on free competition, and also with the spirit and trend of modern social economics. There is no panacea that can ‘save’ the incompetents except at the expense of the normal people. They are a burden on society and on the producers wherever they are.”

– A.B. Wolfe, American Economic Review, 1917

4. “Imbecility breeds imbecility as certainly as white hens breed white chickens; and under laissez-faire imbecility is given full chance to breed, and does so in fact at a rate far superior to that of able stocks.”

New Republic editorial, 1916 (most likely written by Herbert Croly)

5. Henry Rogers Seager, a leading progressive economist from Columbia University, argued that worthy workers deserve protection from the “competition of the casual worker and the drifter.”

“The operation of the minimum wage requirement would merely extend the definition of defectives to embrace all individuals, who even after having received special training, remain incapable of adequate self-support…..If we are to maintain a race that is to be made up of capable, efficient and independent individuals and family groups we must courageously cut off lines of heredity that have been proved to be undesirable by isolation or sterilization . . . .”

– Henry Rogers Seager, Columbia University scholar and future American Economic Association president, in 1913 (quoted from “Eugenics and Economics in the Progressive Era”)

6. “[Wage] competition has no respect for the superior races,” said University of Wisconsin economist John R. Commons in his 1907 book Races and Immigrants ( p. 151). “The race with lowest necessities displaces others.”

7. “[The minimum wage will] protect the white Australian’s standard of living from the invidious competition of the colored races, particularly of the Chinese.”

– Arthur Holcombe of Harvard University, a member of the Massachusetts Minimum Wage Commission, speaking approvingly of Australia’s minimum wage legislation in 1912 (quoted from “Eugenics and Economics in the Progressive Era”)