Trying to Meet the Minimum
The Post-Dispatch reports that 2 million Americans will get a raise today. Why, you ask? They probably bet on the Brewers. … Actually, today the federal minimum wage increases by 70 cents, to $6.55 an hour. This is the second of three annual increases that will bring the minimum wage up to $7.25 an hour.
A raise for 2 million Americans sounds like a wonderful thing, almost too good to be true. Indeed, the Post-Dispatch reports one of the negative side effects:
The bad news: […] some small businesses will pass the cost of the wage hike to consumers.
This is one of many things businesses can do to cope with an increase in any of their costs, whether or not that increase takes the form of labor costs, but this isn’t the only option. Suppose you run some sort of business that employs minimum wage workers, such as a restaurant or a car wash. Keep in mind that in running this business, your main goal is to maximize your profit — within the bounds of the law, of course.
Now, suppose the minimum wage rises, increasing your labor costs. What do you do to keep your profit as high as possible? Well, what would you do if anything else you bought increased in price, like, say, gasoline? You’d probably find a way to buy less of it, either by cutting back entirely or by finding some workable substitute. In this case, you would be trying to find ways to cut back on the use of unskilled labor in your business.
There are numerous ways to cut back unskilled labor. The Post-Dispatch already mentioned one: raising prices. How does this cut back on unskilled labor, you might ask? Higher prices will drive some consumers away, so your business won’t need as much unskilled labor as before.
There are also many substitutes for unskilled labor. You could hire someone more skilled, or replace the worker with machinery of some sort. Something as simple as adding a timer onto the fryers at a restaurant can cut the amount of labor needed to produce fried food.
Your could also find ways to decrease compensation without decreasing wages. Cutting benefits is one example. Or, you could remove some costly “luxury” like air conditioning, making the work environment less pleasant in the process.
The main question is, how much of each of these effects actually occurs? If businesses find ways to significantly cut the use of unskilled labor, unemployment among that group will rise, and perhaps so will unemployment in general. If businesses opt primarily to raise prices, low-income individuals will be hurt the most. If businesses instead cut non-monetary compensation, or reduce workplace amenities, the increase in wages seems to be a wash. A classic Show-Me Institute study has even more detail.
The intended goal of a minimum wage, of course, is to reduce poverty by helping low-income families. However, the minimum wage is a terrible policy tool for accomplishing that goal. According to another one of our classic studies, the typical minimum wage worker is still in school, living with a relative, and part of a family earning $57,000 a year. On the other hand, the typical poor worker is older, out of school, earning $9.58/hour, and the sole earner in a family with children. They are poor not because of low wages, but because they don’t work very many hours. In fact, only 25 percent of low-wage workers are below the poverty line. As a result, the study estimated that Missouri’s increase of the minimum wage to $6.50 would only reduce poverty by less than half of a percentage point.
Increasing the minimum wage won’t do much for most of the people it is intended to help, because it does a poor job of targeting them. Something that targets poor families explicitly and directly, like, say, the earned income tax credit, is far more effective at reducing poverty.