The real case against the minimum wage.

How the dismal science applies to your life.
July 9 2004 9:19 AM

The Sin of Wages

The real reason to oppose the minimum wage.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

John Kerry wants to raise the minimum wage, and President Bush, at least in principle, is on board—provided, says the president's spokesman, that it can be done without placing unreasonable costs on "job creators."

The president is trying to cast doubt on Kerry's proposal by alluding to the old canard that minimum wages cause unemployment and therefore hurt the very people they're supposed to help. Obviously that's occasionally true. If you contribute $6 an hour to your employer's bottom line, and if he's forced to pay you $7 an hour, you'll soon find yourself out on the street.

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But so what? Sure, you've lost your job. But don't forget, this was a minimum-wage job in the first place. Losing a lousy job might not be a whole lot worse than keeping it. Meanwhile, lots of minimum-wage workers keep their jobs and are presumably grateful to the politicians who raised their wages.

In fact, the power of the minimum wage to kill jobs has been greatly overestimated. Nowadays, most labor economists will tell you that that minimum wages have at most a tiny impact on employment.

Twenty years ago, they'd have told you otherwise. Back then, dozens of published studies concluded that minimum wages had put a lot of people (especially teenagers, blacks, and women) out of work. As the studies continued to pile up, you might think we'd have grown more confident about their common conclusion. Instead, the opposite happened. Even though the studies were all in agreement, they managed to undercut each other.

Here's how: Ordinarily, studies with large sample sizes should be more convincing than studies with small sample sizes. Following the fates of 10,000 workers should tell you more than following the fates of 1,000 workers. But with the minimum-wage studies, that wasn't happening. According to the standard tests of statistical significance, the results of the large-scale studies were, by and large, neither more nor less significant than the results of the small-scale studies. That's screwy. Screwy enough to suggest that the studies being published couldn't possibly be a representative sample of the studies being conducted.

Here's why that matters: Even if minimum wages don't affect employment at all, about five out of every 100 studies will, for unavoidable statistical reasons, appear to show a significant effect. If you could read all 100 studies, that wouldn't be a problem—95 conclude the minimum wage is pretty harmless as far as employment goes, five conclude it's a big job-killer, you realize the latter five are spurious, and you draw the appropriate conclusion. But if the 95 studies that found no effect were deemed uninteresting and never got published, then all you'd see were the spurious five. And then the next year, another five, and the next year another five.

Even when the bulk of all research says one thing, the bulk of all published research can tell a very different and very misleading story.

How do we know what was in all the unpublished research about the minimum wage? Of course we don't know for sure, but here's what we do know: First, the big published studies were no more statistically significant than the small ones. Second, this shouldn't happen if the published results fairly represent all the results. Third, that means there must be some important difference between the published and the unpublished work. And fourth, that means we should be very skeptical of what we see in the published papers.

Now that we've re-evaluated the evidence with all this in mind, here's what most labor economists believe: The minimum wage kills very few jobs, and the jobs it kills were lousy jobs anyway. It is almost impossible to maintain the old argument that minimum wages are bad for minimum-wage workers.

In fact, the minimum wage is very good for unskilled workers. It transfers income to them. And therein lies the right argument against the minimum wage.

Ordinarily, when we decide to transfer income to some group or another—whether it be the working poor, the unemployed, the victims of a flood, or the stockholders of American Airlines—we pay for the transfer out of general tax revenue. That has two advantages: It spreads the burden across all taxpayers, and it makes politicians accountable for their actions. It's easy to look up exactly how much the government gave American, and it's easy to look up exactly which senators voted for it.

By contrast, the minimum wage places the entire burden on one small group: the employers of low-wage workers and, to some extent, their customers. Suppose you're a small entrepreneur with, say, 10 full-time minimum-wage workers. Then a 50 cent increase in the minimum wage is going to cost you about$10,000 a year. That's no different from a $10,000 tax increase. But the politicians who imposed the burden get to claim they never raised anybody's taxes.

If you want to transfer income to the working poor, there are fairer and more honest ways to do it. The Earned Income Tax Credit, for example, accomplishes pretty much the same goals as the minimum wage but without concentrating the burden on a tiny minority. For that matter, the EITC also does a better job of helping the people you'd really want to help, as opposed to, say, middle-class teenagers working summer jobs. It's pretty hard to argue that a minimum-wage increase beats an EITC increase by any criterion.

The minimum wage is nothing but a huge off-the-books tax paid by a small group of people, with all the proceeds paid out as the equivalent of welfare to a different small group of people. If a tax-and-spend program that arbitrary were spelled out explicitly, voters would recoil. How unfortunate that when it is disguised as a minimum wage, not even our Republican president can manage to muster a principled objection.

Steven E. Landsburg is the author, most recently, ofMore Sex Is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics. You can e-mail him at armchair@landsburg.com.

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