Should Kansas City double the minimum wage from $7.50 to $15 an hour? Local politicians all seem to think so. Councilman Jermaine Reed introduced an ordinance to that effect, and Mayor Sly James has attended a rally in support of the higher wages. Though so far, there is no plan to actually vote on the matter. This is an important issue, and it’s reasonable to look at the likely impacts of the policy before jumping in.
Despite intentions, increases to the minimum wage do not necessarily help the poor. Even Christina Romer, who led President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors, openly conceded there were questions about “whether a higher minimum wage will achieve better outcomes for the economy and reduce poverty.”
The reasons why are simple. First, most minimum wage earners don’t actually live in poverty. Two-thirds come from households making at or above 150 percent of the poverty line; 44 percent live in households whose income is three times the poverty level. From the viewpoint of earners, raising the minimum wage is a clumsy tool and is more likely to benefit the non-poor than the poor.
Second, the number of people paid the minimum is not especially high. Today, less than 5 percent of hourly workers are paid minimum wage. Among all U.S. workers, minimum wage employees constitute just 3 percent of the American workforce. Not only are relatively few people being paid the minimum technically living in poverty, but relatively few people are being paid the minimum at all. Targeting low-wage workers is not the same as helping low-income families.
Third, and most important, there is a wealth of economic analysis that shows minimum wage laws punish the very people they are supposed to help—making it harder for people with few skills or work experience to find entry-level jobs. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that a national minimum wage increase to $10 per hour would reduce available jobs by 500,000. Doubling the minimum wage in Kansas City from $7.50 to $15 would have even more dramatic results here. The reason for this is simple: As labor costs rise, employers may turn to cheaper technological substitutes, cut employees, or have employees work fewer hours. This trend is already occurring in grocery stores and restaurants.
As workers have to compete for fewer entry-level jobs, those with the fewest skills are left behind. A study by the University of California, San Diego found that increasing the minimum wage reduced the earnings potential of low-skilled workers whom the higher minimum wage was meant to help by limiting job opportunities. These workers need entry-level jobs that enable them to develop skills and gain experience.
As a compassionate people, we are eager to promote policies that help alleviate poverty. We do not succeed by making jobs more scarce, which is what would happen if Kansas City enacted a “living wage.”