A news story today leads with the headline “Minimum-wage hikes could deepen shortage of health aides” (h/t David Boaz). The key section (reported on ABC News):
It’s a national problem advocates say could get worse in New York because of a phased-in, $15-an-hour minimum wage that will be statewide by 2021, pushing notoriously poorly paid health aides into other jobs, in retail or fast food, that don’t involve hours of training and the pressure of keeping someone else alive.
Contained within this story is some bad economic reasoning and terminology but also an interesting, but rarely discussed, effect of minimum wages.
First, the mistake. Take the headline. The basic economics of the minimum wage tells us the raising the statutory price of labor above some equilibrium will lead to a reduction in the quantity of labor demanded. But it also says there will be an increase in the quantity of labor supplied. Far from causing a “shortage” of health aides then, raising the minimum wage leads to a surplus of labor. Raising the pay rate increases the return to working in the industry relative to being on welfare, and presuming budgets are unchanged (the article explains that most home care is paid by government programs), the quantity demanded falls at the same time. The gap that arises is precisely the “unemployment effect.”
It’s not clear then why raising a minimum wage would lead to fewer people seeking to be home care or health aides. Assuming demand is fixed, it would lead to fewer people being health care aides or health care aides being less available (shorter working hours etc). Yet that is not what the article claims—it suggests supply of available workers is falling, despite the pay-off to the job increasing.
What’s the point that the article is getting at then? It can be the case that raising a minimum wage changes wage rate differentials between industries. The article states that the average home care wage is about $11 per hour, whereas a quick Google search suggests many low-paid retail and fast food jobs may pay less than that in certain regions. If a hypothetical fast food job would pay $9 per hour in a free market and a home care job $11 per hour, then raising the statutory minimum to $15 can eliminate the differential. This makes fast food jobs more attractive on the margin, particularly given the home care training, and could mean the relative supply of workers increases in these industries compared to home care.
Indeed, there are good reasons to think that the unemployment effects will be far bigger in retail and fast food than home care. Demand is also likely to be more responsive in retail and fast food, not least because some jobs can be mechanized. It’s much easier to envisage a robot making a burger than roaming to treat elderly patients with different health needs. Given that much of home care is financed by government, one can also envisage that demand may increase as a result of a higher budget to meet increased costs associated with the minimum wage.
In short: contra the article, wage rises should raise the quantity of labor supplied, not reduce it. But compressing the wages of sectors may change the attractiveness of certain jobs at the margin.