Thoughts on a $15 Minimum Wage

~ 800 words, ~4 min reading time

The $15 minimum wage is back in the news, thanks to Pres. Biden’s support for this wage. So, let me get some thoughts down on this.

1. Too many people rely on Card & Krueger’s Study

Pretty much any time you see a minimum wage advocate talk about the minimum wage, they’ll bring up Card and Krueger’s 2000 study. In brief: this pair of economists studied the data from fast food restaurants in NJ and PA when there was a minimum wage increase in one of the states, and found no significant employment effects. What effects they found seemed, on average, more positive than negative.

However, Card and Krueger are not the ONLY study about the minimum wage. There are loads – so it is only fair to look at what we term a “meta analysis”. These studies compile the results of other empirical studies. It’s a way of putting any one study in a broader context so that you can make more general statements about results. There are several meta analyses of the minimum wage out there. Here’s one clearly opposed to minimum wage increases and another which is much more favorable to them. Interestingly, the actual statistics aren’t that different between the two. So, this is a better place to look.

2. The data shows “significant, but modest” negative employment effects

The consensus seems to be that MOST minimum wage studies find negative effects on employment, but these effects aren’t very big. Something near a 0.05% drop in employment among low-wage workers for a 1% increase in the minimum wage seems to be about average. So, is this “significant”?

On the “yes” side we have those that like the language of “statistically significant”. What this means: the 0.05 result has a small enough margin of error that we are pretty confident it’s REAL. That is, the effect isn’t actually 0, but happened to look negative as a statistical anomaly. Instead, there is a real negative impact.

On the “no” side we have those that like the language of “economically significant”. What this means: 0.05 isn’t very big. Is this true? Well…

3. Even with a “modest” negative effect, a $15 minimum wage may lead millions of people to have problems with employment.

There are estimates that about 40% of the US workforce earns under $15 an hour. That’s about 64 million people. If each 1% increase in the minimum wage disemploys 0.05% of the impacted workers, then a move from $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour would lead to a drop in employment of about 5%. (I’m rounding a bit here.) That’s 3.2 million people.

Is 3.2 million people “a lot”? For perspective: there are currently about 11 million unemployed workers in the US, by the BLS’s definition. (For the BLS being “unemployed” means you “have no job, but are actively seeking employment” – it has no definitional connection to whether you’re getting unemployment compensation or not.)

I’ll let you decide if adding 3.2 million to a group of 11 million is “a lot”.

Naturally, this is a very rough “back of the envelope” calculation, and might be biased upward a bit – after all, the minimum wage of Washington state is already slated to go to $15/hour, so a federal minimum wage of $15/hr, slowly phased in is unlikely to have much effect there. The CBO’s estimates are that we’d see something close to a loss of 1.3 million jobs, though 3.7 million is a possibility on the high end. So, my back of the envelope calculation is close to the CBO’s worst case scenario.

4. There are better options.

While economists disagree on a lot, I think it’s fair to say that most economists would say that the way to help poor people is to give them money.

For example: economists generally agree that the Earned Income Tax Credit is a pretty efficient way to help those with low incomes, while even most of those that support a minimum wage increase don’t see it as very efficient.

I think it’s fair to say there isn’t a lot of consensus among economists on exactly what should be done about poverty – it’s a complicated issue, and the solutions depend very much on the multitude of causes – but the simple fact that even most of those that support a minimum wage increase don’t think it is very efficient is important. There are better ways.

A couple that might be worth thinking about: a Universal Basic Income or a Job Guarantee. Neither of these is “perfect”. However, they both offer options that could improve the well-being of those with low incomes without the small-but-real negative effects on employment that minimum wages have. They also have the benefit of putting the burden on the taxpayers rather than on employers. But, I confess I have developed a strong aversion to unfunded regulations.

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