The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is increasingly creating economic damage that needs to be considered with the benefits it might offer the poor.
Democrats are now proposing to increase the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour. News organizations have repeatedly noted that economists do not agree on the employment effects of historical minimum-wage changes (the more recent federal changes in 2007, 2008 and 2009 have not yet been studied enough for us to agree or disagree on results specific to those episodes) and do not agree on whether minimum wage increases confer benefits on the poor.
That doesn’t mean that we economists disagree on every aspect of the minimum wage. We agree that minimum wages do some economic damage, although reasonable economists sometimes believe that the damage can be offset and even outweighed by benefits.
More important, we agree that the extent of that damage increases with the gap between the minimum wage and the market wage that would prevail without the minimum. A $10 minimum wage does less damage in an economy in which market wages would have been $9 than it would in an economy in which market wages would have been $2.
Moreover, elevating the wage $2 above the market does more than twice the damage of elevating the wage $1 above the market. (Employers can more easily adjust to the first dollar by asking employees to take more responsibility or taking steps to reduce turnover, steps that get progressively harder.) That’s why economists who favor small minimum wage increases do not call for, say, a $100 minimum wage, because at that point the damage would far outweigh the benefits.
Market wages normally tend to increase over time with inflation and as workers become more productive. As long as the minimum wage is a fixed dollar amount, the tendency for market wages to increase over time means that economic damage from the minimum wage is shrinking. That’s one reason that economists who see benefits of minimum wages would like to see minimum wages indexed to inflation, allowing the minimum wage to increase automatically as the economic damages fell.
But these are not normal times. The least-skilled workers are seeing their wages fall over time, largely because they are out of work and failing to acquire the skills that come with working. Moreover, the new health care regulations going into effect in January are expected to reduce cash wages, as many employers of low-skill workers are hit with per-employee fines of about $3,000 per employee per year, as the law mandates new fringe benefits for other employers and low-skill workers have to compete with others for the part-time jobs that are a popular loophole in the new legislation. (The minimum wage law restricts flexibility on cash wages, by establishing a floor, but makes no rule on fringe benefits.)
To keep constant the damage from the federal minimum wage, the federal minimum wage needs not an increase but an automatic reduction over the next couple of years in order for it to stay in parallel with market wages.