Reporting the Minimum Wage

Economists generally agree that minimum wage laws tend to put low-skilled workers out of work. (Even economists who support minimum wage laws for reasons of politics or “justice” don’t really argue that the laws don’t raise unemployment.) But that message hasn’t really reached journalists. Today’s stories on the mandated rise in the minimum wage take one of two forms: Assuming that the raise is “good news” for low-paid workers, or quoting one economist on each side. The latter is certainly better, but it does convey the sense that “economists disagree about the effects of minimum wage laws,” which doesn’t really reflect the state of economic knowledge.

NPR used both versions. Some of its hourly newscasts led with “The minimum wage hike  means 70 cents more per hour for low-income workers.” But some also noted, ”That’s supposed to be good news for low-income workers, but economists disagree about whether it will help or hurt the economy.” NPR did a somewhat balanced story yesterday. 

Many journalists went with the easy, mostly wrong, “good news” approach, as these headlines and first sentences illustrate:

  • ABC News: Relief for Workers at Bottom: Minimum Wage Goes Up
  • Time: With the U.S. trillions of dollars in the hole, 70 cents an hour sounds like chump change. But it’s a big boost for the millions of workers who earn that much extra as of July 24.
  • Philadelphia Inquirer: Minimum-wage workers to get a pay bump today
  • WFMY (Greensboro, NC): Starting today, minimum wage workers will see extra cash in their pay checks.
  • News on 6 (Tulsa): Thousands of Oklahoma workers will receive a pay raise on Friday when a new federal minimum wage takes effect.

But some did at least acknowledge the controversy:

  • APMinimum wage hike could threaten low earners’ jobs
  • USA Today: The third minimum wage increase in three years, effective Friday, is a moneymaker and a money-taker: Millions of workers soon will see pumped-up paychecks, while many already-struggling businesses face the burden of increased payroll costs.
  • CNN: Minimum wage hike: More money or fewer jobs?/On Friday the federal minimum wage jumps to $7.25 an hour from $6.55. Economists differ as to whether that will hurt or help low-income workers.
  • Kansas City Star: The federal minimum wage rises today from $6.55 to $7.25 an hour, bringing with it controversy about whether the increase is good or bad for the economy.

The New York Times gets the prize for its stark decline in economic understanding. Its editorial today begins, in a triumph of hope over economic reasoning:

An estimated 2.8 million employees will get a raise on Friday, as the federal minimum wage rises from $6.55 an hour to $7.25. Another 1.6 million whose hourly pay hovers around $7.25 are also expected to get a boost as employers adjust their pay scales to the new minimum. The raise is badly needed. It is also wholly inadequate.

But for decades the Times’s editors knew better. Sure, Henry Hazlitt wrote some of their editorials back in the 1930s. But that doesn’t explain the paper’s continuing criticisms of the minimum wage into the 1990s. Richard McKenzie wrote a short book in 1994 called Times Change: The Minimum Wage and the New York Times. Bruce Bartlett reported some of the history in 2004:

For decades, that paper had carefully and consistently editorialized against the minimum wage. But 5 years ago, for no apparent reason, it reversed a policy dating back to 1937 and suddenly endorsed a higher minimum wage. Its latest editorial on this topic appeared on July 24, in which legislators in Albany were urged to agree on a “much-needed increase in the minimum wage” for New York State.

When I first began clipping Times editorials on the minimum wage back in the 1970s, they were unambiguous in their condemnation of it as misdirected, inefficient, and having negative consequences for most of those it was supposed to help. For example, an August 17, 1977, editorial stated, “The basic effect of an increase in the minimum wage … would be to intensify the cruel competition among the poor for scarce jobs.” For this reason, it said, “Minimum wage legislation has no place in a strategy to eliminate poverty.”

In the 1980s, the Times became even more aggressive in its denunciations of the minimum wage. Rather than simply argue against increases, it actively campaigned for abolition of the minimum wage altogether. Indeed, a remarkable editorial on January 14, 1987, was entitled, “The Right Minimum Wage: $0.00.”

Everything in that editorial is still true today. “There’s a virtual consensus among economists that the minimum wage is an idea whose time has passed,” it said. “Raise the legal minimum price of labor above the productivity of the least skilled workers and few will be hired,” it correctly observed. In conclusion, “The idea of using a minimum wage to overcome poverty is old, honorable — and fundamentally flawed. It’s time to put this hoary debate behind us, and find a better way to improve the lives of people who work very hard for very little.”

Even in the 1990s, the Times remained skeptical about the value of raising the minimum wage. An April 5, 1996, editorial conceded that a proposed 90 cent increase in the minimum wage would wipe out 100,000 jobs. It said that Republican critics of the minimum wage as a “crude” antipoverty tool were right.

By 1999, however, the nation’s newspaper of record had completely reversed itself. In a September 14 editorial, it endorsed a sharp increase in the minimum wage, arguing that it would have no impact whatsoever on unemployment. “For millions of workers, a higher minimum wage means a better shot at self-sufficiency,” it stated.

Bartlett suggested that the Times ought to tell its readers why it changed a long-standing, well-grounded, and indeed correct editorial position.