Minimum Wages Rise Across the Country

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Twenty four states rang in 2020 with minimum wage increases. Most of the increases are modest, so the tradeoffs will be, too. But there was curiously little discussion of those tradeoffs. This is a common tendency among both the media and the general public. They often prefer to either deny that tradeoffs exist, or else play them down. This is unfair to affected workers.

The New York Times editorial board, for example, in a recent editorial titled “Double the Federal Minimum Wage,” opens:

Opponents of minimum-wage laws have long argued that companies have only so much money and, if required to pay higher wages, they will employ fewer workers.

Now there is evidence that such concerns, never entirely sincere, are greatly overstated.

Not only does this piece downplay unemployment tradeoffs, it is one of only two types of tradeoffs it mentions. The editorial also calls for increasing tipped workers’ wages, but those workers mostly disagree, preferring sometimes-informal tipped income over a higher formally reported wage.

Regarding unemployment, the Times piece cites the famous 1993 Card and Krueger study that found no unemployment increases in the aftermath of a New Jersey minimum wage increase. That study relied on survey data, in which business owners sometimes give less-than-honest answers, so as not to appear stingy or heartless. Card and Krueger also did not control for outside economic factors, or what statisticians call “the dreaded third thing.” These relevant third things include macro-level financial, economic, and monetary policy conditions, and local government policy changes other than minimum wage increases. By focusing on only one industry, fast food, Card and Krueger also did not see how other sectors responded to the same increase and possibly affected each other’s behavior.

Job cuts are one of the rarest tradeoffs to minimum wages. It is a drastic measure employers will take only if they have to. Instead, employers typically make much subtler, but more widespread cuts in other areas so they can avoid firing people. This is why, while most studies do find job losses from minimum wage increase, they are typically modest. This is not a victory for minimum wage increase advocates. It means they are not looking very hard for tradeoffs.

My recent paper focuses on those many tradeoffs. When wage pay goes up, non-wage pay goes down to roughly cancel it out. That means cuts to vacation time and perks like free food or parking, less generous insurance, less workplace flexibility, less attention paid to working conditions, and on and on. The mix of tradeoffs is different at every company, and for every affected worker inside a given company, but their rough effect is to roughly cancel out the benefits of the increase. Moreover, larger companies take advantage of minimum wage laws to artificially hobble smaller competitors by raising their labor costs. That is where the debate should be. Jobs are a small part of a much larger picture.

While the House passed a $15 federal minimum wage bill last year, the Senate is not likely to take it up. The more than 50 increases that have just taken effect are all at the state and local level, but minimum wages will almost certainly be a significant campaign issue in 2020. Regardless of November’s election results, next year’s incoming Congress will likely attempt another increase next year, just as most Congresses have over the last 80 years or so.

For more on minimum wages, see my paper “Minimum Wages Have Tradeoffs.”