Should Congress Raise the Federal Minimum Wage?--Posner
Increasing the federal minimum wage, currently $5.15 an hour, is a priority of the new Democratic Congress. Democratic leaders want to raise it by 40 percent, to $7.25 an hour. From an economic standpoint, even from an egalitarian standpoint, raising the minimum wage, especially by such a large amount (roughly 10 percent of the American workforce makes less than $7.25 an hour, which is double the percentage of the workforce that is paid the current minimum wage), would be a grave mistake. As a matter of economic theory, increasing the price of an input into production, such as labor, has two effects: an increase in the price of the product, because the producer's costs have risen (provided the increased input cost affects his competitors as well) and a reduction in the demand for the input, both because the higher price of the product reduces demand for it and because substitute inputs will now be more attractive. Any such substitution will be inefficient because it is motivated not by an increase in the real cost of labor but by a government-mandated increase in the price of the input, which has the same misallocative effect as monopoly pricing.
If the input is labor, forcing employers to pay employees an above-market wage will result in (1) higher prices for the goods or services produced by the employers, which will have the same effect as a tax on the consumers of those goods or services, (2) higher wages for those minimum-wage employees whose employers decide to retain them and pay the mandated new wage, and (3) less employment of marginal workers, that is, of workers paid less than the imposed minimum. Any interference with the market-determined wage level is prima facie inefficient; and to the extent that marginal workers are poorer than workers unaffected by a minimum wage, and the consumers of goods and services produced by employers of marginal workers are also below average in income, a minimum-wage law is inegalitarian as well as inefficient. Its effect on income equality, however, depends not only on the relative incomes of the groups affected by the law but also on the balance between the effect on employment and the effect on the wages of those who are retained. The lower the percentage drop in employment relative to the size of the minimum wage, the less likely the net effect of the mininum-wage law will be to make marginal workers worse off. Some economists, notably David Card and Alan Krueger, deny that the minimum wage has any disemployment effect. See their book Myth and Measurement: The New Economics of the Minimum Wage (1995), but their work has been heavily criticized. See, e.g., David Neumark & William Wascher, "Minimum Wages and Employment: A Case Study of the Fast Food Industry in New Jersey and Pennsylvania: Comment," 90 Am. Econ. Rev. 1362 (2000), and Richard V. Burkhauser, Kenneth A. Couch & David C. Wittenburg, "A Reassessment of the New Economics of the Minimum Wage Literature with Monthly Data from the Current Population Survey," 18 J. Lab. Econ. 653 (2000). It is unlikely that a 40 percent increase in the minimum wage would have no effect on employment.
Although working full time at $5.15 an hour yields an annual income (slightly more than $10,000) barely above the poverty line, most minimum-wage workers are part time, and for the majority of them their minimum-wage employment supplements an income derived from other sources. Examples of such workers are retirees living on social security or private pensions who want to get out of the house part of the day and earn some pin money, stay-at-home spouses who want to supplement their full-time spouse's earnings, teenagers working after school, and other students. An increase in the minimum wage--depending critically of course on how great the increase is--will provide a windfall to some minimum-wage workers, many of whom are not poor, and disemploy some others, also not poor. The effect on wage equality is likely to be slight, but consumer prices will be higher (which may reduce overall equality) and the efficiency with which goods and services are produced by low-wage workers will be reduced.
As a means of raising people from poverty or near poverty, the minimum wage is distinctly inferior to the Earned Income Tax Credit, which compensates for low wages without interfering with the labor market. EITC is of course not devoid of allocative effect, because like any other government spending it is defrayed out of taxes; but it is probably a less inefficient tax than the minimum wage. And it is a more efficient device for spreading the wealth, since many, perhaps most, minimum-wage workers are not poor.
So why are the Democrats pushing to increase the minimum wage rather than to make EITC more generous? Three reasons can be conjectured. First, unions, which are an important part of the Democratic Party's coalition, favor the minimum wage because it reduces competition from low-wage workers and thus enhances the unions' bargaining power and so their appeal to workers. This would not be as serious a problem for unions if minimum-wage workers were organized. But the fact that most minimum-wage workers are part time makes them uninterested in joining unions. Second, increasing the EITC would mean an increase in government spending and hence in pressure to increase taxes, and the Democrats wish to avoid being labeled tax-and-spend liberals. And third, genuinely poor people vote little. The number of nonpoor who would be benefited by an increase in the minimum wage, when combined with the number of nonpoor workers whose incomes will rise as a result of reducing competition from minimum-wage workers, probably exceeds the number of nonpoor who will be laid off as a result of an increase in the minimum wage. Teenagers, moreover, will be among the groups hardest hit, and most of them do not vote.