Mainstream media and establishment politicians try to tell us that we need a higher federal minimum wage. President Biden has proposed a $15 federal minimum wage, to be exact, and there are many loud supporters of this policy.
We’ve already debunked the myth that a higher federal minimum wage would be good for our country. In fact, it would hurt the very people it’s meant to help — low-wage, low-skilled workers.
However, a little known fact that almost nobody knows (and even fewer people want to admit) is that the introduction of the federal minimum wage in the American economy arose out of eugenics efforts in the early 1900s.
Harvard University’s Role in Eugenics
This may come as a shock to you, as it did to me when I first started diving deeper into this topic. It turns out there’s a longstanding relationship between Harvard University, eugenics, and the federal minimum wage. As a Harvard alumna, I was particularly compelled and shocked by the information I uncovered.
According to Adam S. Cohen in an article published in Harvard Magazine in 2016, “Harvard was more central to American eugenics than any other university. Harvard has, with some justification, been called the ‘brain trust’ of twentieth-century eugenics, but the role it played is little remembered or remarked upon today.”
Harvard was more central to American eugenics than any other university.
The progressive administrators and professors at Harvard were hell-bent on creating a “better world” through science — and their scientific research efforts justified many different eugenics efforts. Some of these efforts were as simple as infusing eugenics with physical education. Academics insisted that women regularly practice specific pelvic floor exercises because they believed a strong, well-developed pelvis would lead to “brainy,” physically strong children.
Eugenics and Immigration
But Harvard’s obsession with eugenics didn’t stay within the university walls. Their commitment to biological engineering was brought to the courts, Congress, and the public. In 1894, a group of Harvard alumni and self-proclaimed “Boston Brahmins” created an organization called Immigration Restriction League (they seriously considered changing their official name to Eugenic Immigration League). Their goal was to keep out any immigrants who would taint their pure bloodline.
They even persuaded Senator Henry Cabot Lodge in Massachusetts to introduce a literacy bill — it passed in 1917, and immigrants were required to pass a literacy test to be admitted into the country. Later on, in 1924, the Immigration Restriction League worked tirelessly to ensure the Immigration Act of 1924 was passed, which completely excluded immigrants from Asia. (This act was revised by Congress in 1952.)
Eugenics and Forced Sterilization
There’s one more piece of history you need to know before we talk more about eugenics and the minimum wage: the famous Supreme Court case, Buck vs. Bell. In 1927, Carrie Buck was a young woman accused of “feeblemindedness,” and she was thus forced to be sterilized in Virginia. She grew up in poverty in Charlottesville, was taken in by a foster family, and was raped by one of the family members. Because she fell pregnant out of wedlock, she was considered “feebleminded.”
Around 70,000 Americans (perhaps more) were forcibly sterilized.
The Supreme Court upheld Virginia’s sterilization laws and Carrie’s sterilization by an 8-1 vote — even though her daughter was born perfectly normal. This laid the groundwork for many others to be forcibly sterilized over the next 50 years. Well-known Harvard professor Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was the dean of Harvard Medical School in 1880, wrote the majority of opinion on the case and urged the court and the United States as a whole to uphold sterilization laws in order to “prevent our being swamped with incompetence.”
Sounds like a horror movie, doesn’t it? Well, it only got worse from there. Around 70,000 Americans (perhaps more) were subsequently sterilized. Countless Harvard alumni and professors supported these efforts and called for even more forced sterilization.
Eugenics and the Federal Minimum Wage
This all created the perfect foundation for all these professors, academics, and elites to push for a federal minimum wage. After all, they believed that we needed to protect society from being contaminated by “feebleminded,” low-IQ people who would taint the pure bloodline.
In the early 1900s, progressive economists had some big wins with state laws that regulated working conditions, instituted “mother” pensions, capped working hours, etc. Their goal was to create an expansive state role in the American economy. This is when eugenics started being used to justify the implementation of the minimum wage. Just like capped working hours and banning child labor were made to protect the working class and children, a minimum wage was meant to protect Americans from being contaminated by certain demographics and races.
A minimum wage was meant to protect Americans from being contaminated by certain demographics and races.
Progressive economists knew that a minimum wage would cause job losses. They believed this was a social benefit because it was considered a “eugenic service” of ridding society and the labor force of the “unemployable.” According to Frank Taussig, professor of economics at Harvard, there were two classes of the unemployable, both of which should be blocked out of the workforce with a minimum wage: the elderly, sick, and disabled; and the “feebleminded” (like Carrie Buck) who are tainted with hereditary disease or the inclination to commit crimes.
Taussig once said the feebleminded “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.” Just to remind you, Taussig and his colleagues were the progressive, liberal elites of America.
Minimum Wage Was a Tool of Prejudice and Racism
The idea that unemployables couldn’t earn a living wage was also birthed out of the progressive idea that wages should be determined by the amount needed for a reasonable standard of living rather than productivity. In relation to eugenics, there was an idea that there were “low-wage races,” that certain races were biologically designed to earn less money. The elites who believed in eugenics insisted that “native” workers were more productive but because Chinese individuals were more predisposed to earn lower wages, they would displace the “natives.”
Wage competition (a.k.a. an economy with no minimum wage) produced two unwanted results for these progressive economists and academics: lowered wages overall, and allowing the “unfit” races to succeed. According to economist John R. Common, wage competition had no “respect for the superior races.”
“Low-wage races” were certain races that were biologically designed to earn less money.
Arthur Holcombe, another Harvard professor who used eugenics theory to push the minimum wage, referred to Australia’s minimum wage law to “protect the white Australian’s standard of living from the invidious competition of the colored races, particularly of the Chinese.” He was in favor of eliminating the competition of the unemployable and encouraged Florence Kelley, an influential U.S. labor reformer, to implement a minimum wage law in order to achieve similar results.
By the 1930s, American eugenics started to go into decline and lost its popularity in academic circles, due to the increasing burden of political and scientific liabilities, as well as the desire to distance ourselves from Nazi Germany and their love of eugenics. However, even though eugenic efforts were on their way out of fashion in the 1930s, the effects of progressive elites and their appreciation of eugenics remained. The minimum wage was passed through the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, and the minimum wage was officially put into effect in 1948.
In his book Discrimination and Disparities, economist Thomas Sowell points out that the minimum wage resulted in an astronomical rise of unemployment in certain demographics, including and especially black teenagers. I can’t help but think that progressives like Taussig, Common, Holcombe, and their colleagues would be proud of their efforts. The minimum wage had the exact effect they desired — to block out certain races and demographics from the workforce for fear that they would steal jobs from the “natives.”