Yesterday, the governors of California and New York signed legislation to raise their states’ minimum wage over the next few years to $15 an hour throughout California and much of New York. Similar proposals are percolating in other state and local governments, and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has called for a national minimum wage of $15/hour.
Predictably, critics of raising the minimum wage are arguing that the higher wage floor will hurt employment for low-skill workers, the very people the wage floor is intended to help. A worker will be employed only if the value of his output is greater than the cost of employing him—a cost that includes wages, employer payroll taxes (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance), training and outfitting costs, the new health care mandate and other benefits, etc. According to these opponents, the higher wage floor will reduce employment for low-skill workers and encourage employers to find non-labor ways to accomplish low-skill tasks (e.g., ATM machines, self-serve gas pumps, vending machines, automated phone answering systems).
Wage-increase supporters dismiss this concern, claiming there’s no proof that a higher wage floor hurts employment. A very large body of empirical research indicates otherwise, however, with the negative effects falling mainly on workers below age 25 (which isn’t surprising, as 77% of workers earning the federal minimum wage are below age 25, and they have few demonstrated work skills). Wage-increase supporters can argue the research isn’t unanimous, but given the one-sidedness of the extensive empirical evidence, that argument sounds a bit like climate change denial—if not creation science.
More thoughtful wage-increase supporters have begun offering a different argument: Yes, they concede, raising the minimum wage can hurt low-skill employment. But that harm is a worthwhile tradeoff for better wages for the remaining low-skill work: some workers may lose their jobs or some work hours, but others will get a raise.
This argument is important and interesting—in a Marie Antoinette* sort of way.