SF Fed Report: Min Wage Increases Ineffective vs. Poverty

I'm not a huge fan of the minimum wage, but I also admit it isn't going away. It's a feel-good public policy that some nations embrace with complex brackets (Australia indexes for age of worker) and others simply don't have at all. There's little economic correlation between the minimum wage and job creation, because the wage tends to trail earned wages in skilled trades.

Which nations don't have legal minimum wages? How about Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland! Germany has regional minimums, handled by local governments, just as many states in the United States set their own minimums.

How can it be that social democracies don't have minimum wages? They have a history of employee ownership, through unions with board seats at companies. The United States lacks a similar history of corporate-union or even government-union cooperation. Our unions are more adversarial. (Maybe they should try another approach; it might increase wages and influence.)

The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco studied the minimum wage (yet another minimum wage study) and found it has negligible effects on poverty or employment. Basically, increasing the wage costs some job creation and helps the working children of middle-class and upper-middle-class families earn some extra cash. That's not a bad thing for college students, but not a great thing for unskilled people in poverty… many of whom don't have jobs!
Hiking minimum wage won't stop poverty: Fed paper
Jeff Cox
Wednesday, 30 Dec 2015 | 1:47 PM ET

David Neumark, visiting scholar at the San Francisco Fed, contends that raising the minimum wage has only limited benefits in the war against poverty, due in part because relatively few of those falling below the poverty line actually receive the wage.

Many of the benefits from raising the wage, a move already undertaken by multiple governments around the country as well as some big-name companies, tend to go to higher-income families….
It seems counter-intuitive, but I've written about his before. Minimum wage tends to be temporary and most of its earners are the high school and college-aged children of middle-class parents. Yes, there are single parents earning minimum wage in fast food jobs, but they are statistical outliers, not the norm.

Thinking back, when I was in high school almost everyone had a retail or food industry job. In college, we were the shift-managers and lead clerks. I worked at K-Mart, for example, and earned a raise every summer. I earned minimum wage for only six months. Though anecdotal, my experience reflects the statistical evidence.

The children of the middle class are able to get to and from jobs. They have some skills and want to build their resumes. Basically, entry-level workers are headed for better jobs.
Demographically, about half of the 3 million or so workers receiving the minimum are 16 to 24 years old, with the highest concentration in the leisure and hospitality industry, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Moreover, the percentage of workers at or below the minimum is on the decline, falling to 3.9 percent in 2014 from the most recent high of 6 percent in 2010.
What about the poor? Believe it or not, 57 percent of families living in poverty don't have a single wage earner. That's astonishing to some people, but the fact is that the poor don't work (at least not for legal wages). That's a serious problem because if they don't work minimum wage jobs, they'll never develop the skills for higher paying jobs.
Neumark also points out that many of those receiving the wage aren't poor — there are no workers in 57 percent of families below the poverty line, while 46 percent of poor workers are getting paid more than $10.10 an hour, and 36 percent are making more than $12 an hour, he said.
The unemployed poor is a global problem, especially in some European nations and the United States. We have a lot of poor without the skills to hold minimum wage jobs. Even the lowest paying jobs require more and more skills as technology advances.

If we want to address poverty, we're back to education and personal responsibility. Other nations have extensive safety nets, yet they still have this same problem. Poverty becomes a cycle, as families don't develop successful habits. How do we teach the skills necessary for self-advancement? That's going to be an increasingly important question this century.

Some of my visitors have suggested in comments that the German wage and employment model would solve many other problems, not just wealth inequality. The problem is, there's no evidence that free education or employee-owned companies have decreased inequality in Germany. Nor have these policies led to better corporate citizens.

In Germany, Volkswagen has employee and regional board members. This model, widely adopted, provides leverage to negotiate higher salaries. VW is also evidence that employee and government board seats don't equal ideal corporate behavior, despite government and union ownership stakes.

The evidence is cloudy, though there's just nothing to suggest increasing wages through mandates or other means (stronger unions) will have an effect on poverty or inequality.

My fear is that wages will be increased nationally based on high-cost states and urban areas. I doubt that will happen, though, because most people do realize $15 in rural Pennsylvania or Alabama isn't the same as $15 in New York City.

More costly employees have to be worth the expense to any business. As a result, companies might avoid hiring the very people a higher wage was meant to help. Instead of hiring an inexperienced worker, I might higher a retiree or a college student. As higher-wage employers know, you get better employees for the money. That's not a bad thing.

One solution is not a higher starting minimum wage, but a bracket approach with guaranteed raises after six months and one year. This would encourage people to stay at jobs and encourage employers to invest in their workers. I dislike the idea of mandating this approach, nationally, but it might be a good compromise.


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