The Minimum Wage Hurts Those It Is Designed to Help
Two bills currently working their way through the Missouri General Assembly, House Bill 61 and Senate Bill 110, would tie Missouri’s minimum wage to the federal figure (both currently set at $7.25) instead of automatically increasing with inflation, which is what a law passed by Missouri voters in 2006 requires. The bills’ critics claim that the legislature should not overturn the will of the people, but that argument misses the point. The real question is whether establishing any minimum wage at all is good policy, and the economic evidence reveals a clear answer: No.
During the debate surrounding the 2006 minimum wage law, the Show-Me Institute released a study by University of California, Irvine, economist David Neumark showing that minimum wage laws decrease employment among unskilled workers and prevent them from acquiring the skills they need to climb the socioeconomic ladder. When the minimum wage increases, businesses respond by hiring fewer low-wage employees. The employees who keep those jobs are more likely to be teenagers from relatively affluent families than minority workers from poorer households.
In essence, a higher minimum wage destroys jobs for the most vulnerable workers in the labor market and redistributes a portion (but not all) of the lost wages to workers who frequently live in families that make more than four times the poverty level. Neumark’s thorough review of the literature demonstrated that a 10-percent increase in the minimum wage (about 70 cents, at present) caused teenage employment to drop by 1 to 2 percent and increased poverty by three quarters of a percent. It is a peculiar type of anti-poverty program that throws poor people out of work.
A 1994 study by economists David Card and Alan Kreuger purported to show an increase in employment in New Jersey’s fast food industry after the passage of a higher minimum wage. However, Card and Kreuger relied on telephone surveys for their employment information. Subsequent studies using payroll documents from the restaurants themselves showed that employment fell after the minimum wage was increased, just as standard economic theory predicts.
Business owners generally do not employ people or give employees raises out of the goodness of their hearts — nor could they, without bankrupting their enterprises. If the government forces a business to pay workers more than the owner believes their labor is worth, those workers will soon be out of a job. Wages do not rise because of government mandates, they rise as workers acquire more skills and create more goods and services at lower costs. We can boost wages across the board with improvements like better education or greater investment in technology, but simply waving the wand of government and expecting low wages to rise magically is no solution at all.
John Payne is a research assistant at the Show-Me Institute, an independent think tank promoting free-market solutions for Missouri public policy.