Minimum Wage Promise and Pitfalls

One aspect of the minimum wage that has been widely ignored is not the impact on overall employment, but on the actual low-wage workers themselves. The question that has been largely ignored is what happens to low-wage workers who are not as good as alternative workers who do not enter the labor force to displace the low-wage workers until the minimum wage is raised?  

Think of a local McDonald’s where at a low minimum wage the workers may not be those with the best social skills. They may not get along well with their colleagues or be very nice to the customers. They do only the minimum required to keep their jobs. Not all low-wage workers have poor social skills, but for obvious reasons workers with poor social skills are over-represented in low-wage jobs. 

Then the minimum wage is raised. A stay-at-home parent may decide that the increased pay makes it worthwhile for them to work when their children are at school. Elderly retired workers may be willing to come back to work when offered higher pay. A college student may decide that the wage is high enough to make it worthwhile to take that McDonald’s job after all. Workers with better social skills may get along better with one another and with the customers, and they may be more willing to pick up trash in the parking lot and keep the restaurant looking nice by cleaning and straightening chairs, etc.  

What the debate about the minimum wage is missing is an analysis of what happens to the original, low-quality workers when better workers show up? With the higher minimum wage, it may be worth the while of the higher-quality workers to enter the labor force and take the jobs away from the low-quality workers. But the low-quality workers are the very ones that need the most help.  

We are fooled into thinking that the minimum wage has no effect when the level of employment does not fall. McDonald’s may employ just as many people for just as many hours as before. But the low-quality workers may have lost their jobs nonetheless. Yet these are the workers who typically are the poorest and need the most help.  

The problem is that we tend to analyze one economics policy tool at a time. But there are times when two tools need to be used in concert with one another to solve a problem. When you try to tighten a bolt and it just goes around and around without tightening, you take a wrench to hold the nut while you use the screwdriver to screw in the bolt. In the same way it is sometimes necessary in economics to use more than one tool at a time. Raising the minimum wage may work well if at the same time unemployment insurance is increased to help the lowest-quality workers.  

From the supply-side point of view, giving money to unemployed workers just encourages them to remain unemployed. But demand-side economics sees workers differently. From the demand-side point of view, more money going to unemployed workers is a good thing, especially if it causes them to hold back on taking a job until a higher wage is offered. The unemployment insurance check helps ensure that workers will not sell out for too low a wage. Even in the absence of a union, a higher unemployment insurance payment can lead to higher wages relative to profits.  

When aggregate demand is too weak relative to aggregate supply, higher unemployment payments will help divert the money flow from the financial markets where it piles up inflating stock and bond prices and depressing interest rates to money flowing to workers who have higher marginal propensities to consume than the investors on Wall Street. When demand is weak, Wall Street investors can’t find real business projects to invest in. In such circumstances diverting profits to worker paychecks through a combination of a minimum wage increase and an increase in unemployment insurance helps create real business opportunities by increasing the demand for goods and services. This produces a healthier economy with greater economic growth from which we all benefit. 

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