Note: Links updated and some errors corrected at 6:23 pm
Lawmakers want to do the right thing on the minimum wage issue and even if some don’t, the issue is a highly symbolic indicator of one’s position on a number of important policy issues. That’s too bad because it reduces the probability that the issue will be decided entirely on its merits (benefits versus costs). With so much hyperbole on both sides of the debate it is difficult to know what the “right thing” is and raising wages for those at the bottom of the wage scale has a lot of appeal as an easier and faster way to augment income than is increasing the productivity and educational attainment of individuals.
This month the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) issued a brief report on minimum wage workers. Anyone interested in the policy debates about minimum wage should at least peruse “Characteristics of Minimum Wage Workers, 2013.” According to the BLS, about 59 percent of workers in this country are paid on an hourly basis and the percentage of that group that is working at or below the minimum wage declined to 4.3 percent last year. Thus about 2.6 percent of all workers (those paid hourly and those on salary) are paid at or below the minimum wage. Most of those workers are employed in a few industries, led by the food service industry which employs nearly one-half of all workers making at or below the minimum wage.
New Hampshire is immersed in its own debate over raising the state’s minimum wage. In what was largely a symbolic measure, the prior legislature repealed the minimum wage and the current legislature looks to reinstate and raise the minimum wage in the state. My analysis of data from the U.S. Census and BLS’s “Current Population Survey” (CPS) indicates that about 10,000 workers in NH earn at or below the national minimum wage of $7.25 (this number is slightly below the 11,000 estimate in the BLS report, but that report rounds the NH estimate so the discrepancy is probably less and well within the CPS’s sampling error).
Another 16,200 earn between $7.25 and the proposed new state minimum of $8.25. Thus about 26,000 hourly workers, about two-thirds of whom are mostly in the food services and retail industries, would be affected by a $8.25 minimum wage. A second proposed increase to $9.00 would affect another 13,600 workers. So all told, about 40,000 workers or about six percent of all workers in the state could be affected. I did not analyze the age composition of NH’s minimum wage workers but a 2007 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston did and they conclude that younger workers comprise a larger portion of minimum wage workers in NH than in the U.S. as a whole. Almost one-half of workers at the minimum in NH are teenagers age 16-19 (chart below).
Whatever the result of NH’s minimum wage debate, a lot of people earning far more than minimum are working to influence the outcome. I have no personal or professional stake in the minimum wage debate but I like the issue because it is a documentary on highly-charged policy fights, combining real and perceived forces of good and darkness: economics, emotion, populism, ideology, compassion, greed, idealism, labor versus management, as well as wealth versus want. The minimum wage debate also provides some of the clearest examples of the tradeoffs involved in public policy choices. In this case, the tradeoff is raising wages for some while reducing the employment opportunities (hours or jobs) for others. Despite what the media say, and the President’s statement that “there’s no solid evidence that a higher minimum wage costs jobs,” most economists do agree that minimum wage increases result in some economic damages (reducing employment). They don’t agree on everything about the impacts of the minimum wage, however, and a good number of reasonable economists believe that the negative employment impacts from minimum wages are offset or even outweighed by the benefits. The negative employment impacts are substantial but do not appear, to me at least, to be dramatic, which of course is a fairly insensitive view that could only be held by someone not negatively impacted by an increase in the minimum wage (who are likely to be the least skilled and with the fewest economic opportunities among us).
In any case, having some negative impacts is not, in itself, enough to reject a policy. Most people, me included, accept the fact that the tradeoff for a compassionate policy that provides a minimal cushion against the ravages of unemployment (unemployment compensation) is some increase in the rate of unemployment. There are just as many or more policies that benefit some businesses or industries but also have some negative competitive impacts or costs to consumers.
I don’t have strong feelings either way about re-establishing and raising the state’s minimum wage. Raising the state’s minimum wage will cost some businesses and/or consumers more and reduce and have some negative impact on employment and hours worked (see the Boston Fed’s study here if you don’t trust me). The chart below demonstrates (too busily) the impacts on a business of an increase in the minimum wage assuming they can’t or don’t raise prices and any increase in the minimum wage comes at the expense of profitability (that is increases is efficiencies can’t offset wage increases). Wages comprise close to 40 percent of business costs for both food service and retail businesses and the high-end of profit margin in those industries is about 5 percent so the chart also incorporates those two assumptions. Depending on what percentage of the businesses’ workforce is currently at or below the minimum wage, the chart shows how business costs increases for both the $8.25 and $9.00 increases (the red lines), as well as how profitability is affected (the blue lines). It may use simplifying assumptions but I think the chart demonstrates why businesses in affected industries are so opposed to a minimum wage increase. While expenses appear to rise modestly, profit margins can quickly erode.
My issues with raising the minimum wage tend to be more about the distribution of the impacts than with their magnitude. Freedom from want for working Americans should be a national goal. If augmenting the income of individuals with the least earning power (because of experience, skills, education, etc.) is a national goal, it is it is hard to see why that responsibility should fall only on a few industries that employ these individuals, especially when doing so will only decrease the opportunities for employment. That seems to be the philosophy behind the Earned Income Tax Credit. There are other distributional impacts as well. Those with the least opportunities bear the greatest negative employment impacts even as they also receive some benefits. Big companies are more able to absorb higher costs and in any case are less likely to pay minimum wage, so smaller, local businesses already at a cost disadvantage can be put at even more of a competitive disadvantage. This is especially true in rural areas. Small, rural towns have lower costs, especially for real estate, so an increase in the minimum wage gives cities and big companies competitive advantages at the expense of small and rural employers.
As is the case with most policy debates, proponents of a minimum wage increase maximize benefits and minimize costs while opponents minimize the benefits while maximizing the costs.