In the first hundred hours of the just-started session of Congress, the new leadership promises to raise the minimum wage. The Democrats won’t be opposed by many Republicans. President Bush says he’ll go along with a higher minimum wage if it’s coupled with tax and regulatory breaks for small businesses.
Raising the minimum wage is definitely popular. Voters in six states approved higher minimums last Election Day. State politicians in both parties are practically drooling with eagerness to "help" lower-income workers. After all, how can you call the current minimum, $5.15 an hour, a "living" wage? Who can live on that?
We all want the poor to make more money. So if government can raise wages by decree, why are the popular proposals so stingy? What good is a measly buck or two extra? Let’s really do something for the poor. Let’s raise the minimum wage to $20 an hour. Even better, $50!
Or maybe we should take a deep breath and think like economists for a change.
The law of supply and demand, which operates whether we like it or not, says that when the price of something goes up, people buy less of it. That’s why environmentalists like higher gasoline taxes, and anti-smoking activists back higher cigarette taxes.
The law of supply and demand works in the labor market, too. If government mandates a higher minimum wage, some workers will get a raise. Some. But something else will happen. Employers will hire fewer low-skilled workers. Others will let some current workers go. Some will choose not to expand their businesses. A few will close altogether. If an employer believes a worker creates only about $5.15 worth of value on the job, he won’t pay $7, even if the government demands it.
Only 2.5 percent of all hourly workers make $5.15 an hour (or less; some jobs are exempt from the law), says the Department of Labor. "Minimum wage workers tend to be young."
Few of them stay at the minimum wage for long. As they acquire skills, their productivity rises and they command higher wages. According to a study done for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, "minimum wages have virtually no effect on the careers of most workers."
A small percentage of people do get stuck in minimum-wage jobs for a longer time. Since wages tend to rise with productivity, these are people whose productivity does not improve. A higher minimum wage will cost some of them their jobs. How does that help them?
Legal wage minimums kill all kinds of entry-level jobs, particularly those that would teach young people basic work habits and the benefits of effort. That’s why there are no kids cleaning your windows at gas stations or working as ushers at movie theaters. Those jobs are extinct now because they are worth less than the legislated minimum. Who is helped by that?
Let’s face it. The higher minimum wage is a feel-good law. A slight increase will pass because politicians and poverty activists will be able to say they have "done something" for the poor, while the victims of the policy go unnoticed. Those who can’t find jobs because they produce too little are not likely to blame the law or the politicians who tried to "help" them. Then the resulting unemployment will justify expansion of the welfare state.
As George Mason University economist Walter Williams says, "It’s tempting to think of higher minimum wages as an anti-poverty weapon, but such an idea doesn’t even pass the smell test. After all, if higher minimum wages could cure poverty, we could easily end worldwide poverty simply by telling poor nations to legislate higher minimum wages."