Tag: Fair Labor Standards Act

Who Works at the Minimum Wage?

Recent protests by fast food workers have renewed interest in the minimum wage. Often, these protests focus on the inability of an individual worker to support a family on the minimum wage. Such a question spurred McDonald’s to release a mock budget for low wage workers. McDonald’s first mistake, however, was in accepting the premise of the question. 

Whoever claimed the minimum wage was supposed to be enough to support a family? Certainly, when I started my first job flipping burgers at Burger King, I didn’t take that job expecting to support a family. It was an avenue to earn some spending money (I wasn’t born a Kennedy, so my family could not provide a generous allowance) and a way to learn some basic job skills. I haven’t been alone in viewing minimum wage restaurants jobs in that light. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012 (latest numbers) over half of minimum wage workers are under age 25. In fact, only 3 percent of workers over the age of 25 earn at or below the minimum wage. Two-thirds of minimum wage workers only work part-time, again illustrating the point that these jobs aren’t viewed as a career but rather the first rung on the job ladder.

The biggest driver of who works at minimum wage is education. Only 8 percent of minimum wage workers have a college degree. Around one third lacks a high school degree. Cost of living also drives the difference. Despite the higher state minimum wages found in the Northeast, about half of all minimum wage workers live in the South, a relatively more affordable place to live. Sadly, opponents of the current minimum wage level are getting their wish, but not in the way they wanted. Since 2010, the number of minimum wage workers has declined by over 800,000. Given the increase in minimum wage in 2009 and the relatively weak labor market, I think it’s a safe bet that most of these workers left the labor force rather than received a big raise. 

Even if all minimum wage workers were trying to support a family on their own, I ultimately do not believe it’s the role of the government to inject itself into consensual private agreements. Nor do I believe it’s the role of the government to pick sides in private disputes. The government has no more moral authority to choose the “right” wage for someone than I do. Only free individuals can make those choices for themselves. Even if it wasn’t a policy choice about freedom of contract, do we really want, as a matter of policy, to encourage a large portion of individuals in their 30s and 40s to make a career of flipping burgers?  I certainly didn’t start my job at Burger King with the intention of staying.  

Unhappy (belated) Birthday National Minimum Wage

I wasn’t in the mood Friday to celebrate the 73rd birthday of the federal minimum wage, created under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.  Looking at youth unemployment numbers can be a little depressing.   Those figures should, however, sober up anyone who is still drunk under the spell of thinking the minimum wage has no impact on unemployment.

The chart above shows the increase in unemployment overall (right axis) and the unemployment rate for workers age 16 to 19 (left axis).  The difference between these two numbers usually runs about 10 percent, even in good times.  Notice that when the minimum wage was raised in July 2009, overall unemployment had started to level off, while youth unemployment sky-rocketed.  We also witnessed a big spike in youth unemployment the last time the minimum wage was raised in July 2008.

For those who truly care about reducing unemployment, as I do, the first thing we can do is recognize that a large part of the problem is being driven by the massive spike in youth unemployment, which the data suggests is partly being driven by the minimum wage.

For a great review of the historical evidence, I suggest David Neumark’s book Minimum Wages.  And yes, I’ve read David Card’s studies, which I think have tons of problems, but that is beyond the discussion here.  The bottom line should be that in a free society, whatever two consenting individuals agree to, should be respected, whether its marriage or the contours of a labor contract.