Long before he turned a single floundering store in Utica, New York into a global chain-store empire, and long before he could boast of a personal fortune estimated at $65 million, Frank Woolworth was an impoverished and unskilled 20 year-old farm boy who desperately wanted a job.
But 20 year-old Woolworth was in a bit of a pickle as he left his father’s farm early in 1873 to search for a job in the city. He desired to become a merchant, but not a single established merchant in New York seemed to want an unfamiliar boy from the country. As Walter Jennings, a 20th century economic historian, noted, Woolworth “called at the various stores asking for work. No one would hire him, and some proprietors would not even talk to him.”
His bad fortune changed one day when a pair of merchants, Augsbury and Moore, gave him an interview. When Woolworth agreed to the job duties and descriptions, he asked how much he would be paid. Augsbury and Moore had a field day with this question. “You don’t expect any pay, do you?” they hollered. “You should work a whole year for nothing, as a schooling. You have to pay tuition when you go to school. We will not ask you any tuition fees.”
Woolworth was shocked, but so eager to work that he agreed to undertake a three month trial period without pay. And so the future leader of a global chain-store empire began his career without pay on the bottom rung of the industry he would eventually dominate.
What would have happened to Woolworth if today’s progressives had implemented their most cherished anti-poverty measure (minimum wage) way back in the 19th century? First, understand that not one of the established merchants from whom Woolworth sought work, including Augsbury and Moore, were willing to pay him even a mere penny. They certainly would not have hired him if the terms required paying him a “living wage.”
Woolworth’s resort to a three month trial period without pay would have been rendered illegal by the minimum wage law, so that he effectively would have been ousted from the job market. Frank Woolworth, the future millionaire and chain-store pioneer, would have been sent back to toil on the farm, kudos to the enlightened minimum wage activists who ostentatiously devote their political work to caring for people like Poor Frank Woolworth.
Woolworth’s example illuminates at least three important lessons. First, from time immemorial until the present day, people have been capable of rising out of poverty armed with nothing but their own ambition. Politicians and their minimum wage laws, historically speaking, have been a negligible factor in the comparatively recent global exodus from poverty.
Second, if minimum wage laws have not been a negligible factor, then they have actually served as an encumbrance to individuals fighting to raise themselves out of poverty.
Finally, our friends on the left are being counterproductive with their “Fight for $15,” Get Outta Poverty Now! infomercial campaigns. You don’t produce an environment in which people are made to feel like victims of oppression from the upper classes and expect those people to develop an ambition to become wealthy (that would be turning into “one of them,” after all). This is why politicians cultishly resort to glorifying the “middle class” as some sort of utopian ideal. I don’t know about you, but I get incredibly tired of being spoon-fed from wealthy politicians the idea that I’m supposed to be inspired by the chance that someday I might get all the way to the middle class!
Want to fight poverty? Then end this creepy “middle-class is nirvana” nonsense and start to teach children the inspirational rags-to-riches stories like Frank Woolworth. Quit teaching children that wealth is antagonistic to poverty. Teach them that wealth is an admirable goal to strive for, and that most wealthy people have achieved their success only because they found better and cheaper ways to make millions of lives better off. Most important, make sure children understand that they are not helpless pawns in the hands of wealthy business owners whose only salvation is a politician who promises nice things.
 Jennings, Walter Wilson. 20 Giants of American Business; Biographical Sketches in Economic History. New York: Exposition, 1953. 406. Print.
 Jennings, Walter Wilson. 20 Giants of American Business; Biographical Sketches in Economic History. New York: Exposition, 1953. 407. Print.