Opponents of a minimum wage increase imagine an economic reality very different from the one millions of American workers experience.
The good news from last week is that President Obama called for raising the federal minimum wage – long overdue and desperately needed for low-wage workers who have seen their real earnings decline during the recovery. The bad news is that his announcement set off a flurry of blogging on the economics of the minimum wage, and, predictably, not a small amount of armchair theorizing.
One particular contribution seems innocuous at first, but in fact frames the issue in an unhelpful and potentially misleading way. In his research roundup last Thursday, Matt Yglesias argued that the best case against raising the minimum wage might be economic freedom:
You’ve got a guy who wants to give someone $8 to do something that’ll take an hour and another guy who wants $8 and is happy to do the thing in exchange for the money. Now Barack Obama’s going to fine them for agreeing to trade $8 for the work? Seems perverse. In the real world, obviously, the perversity of this is greatly mitigated by the existence of formal exemptions and weak enforcement. If you pay a neighbor’s son $10 to mow your lawn and it takes him 70 minutes, you’re going to be able to get away with it even in a world of a $9 minimum wage. Which is probably as it should be.
In this theoretical world, the informal economy is a place where teenagers happily mow lawns and babysit for a little extra cash. But in the real America, we are talking about a large and growing sector of unregulated work, where every day, millions of adults work for sub-minimum wages and no overtime, often in unsafe and hazardous workplaces. Far from peripheral, this sector spans the core industries of our economy, from hotel housekeepers, dishwashers, retail sales workers, domestic workers, and home health aides to janitors, meat processing workers, taxi drivers, warehouse workers, and construction laborers.
And the violations of employment and labor laws are systemic. A landmark 2008 study of more than 4,000 low-wage workers in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles found that 26 percent had been paid less than the minimum wage in the preceding week, 76 percent had been underpaid for their overtime hours, and 70 percent did not receive any pay at all when they came in early or stayed late after their shift. Also important for this discussion: When workers made a complaint to their employer about wages or working conditions, 43 percent were retaliated against. Not surprisingly, many more never complained in the first place, out of fear that they’d be fired or turned over to the immigration authorities.
So this is not a world where workers are “happy to do the thing” for sub-minimum wages. It is not a world where workers and employers come to the wage negotiation with anything even vaguely resembling the equal power one would need to call it economic freedom. (And how low are we willing to go, by the way? Some have called for states to be allowed to experiment with $5 an hour minimum wages – but why stop there? What about $1 an hour? Or abolishing child labor laws, as a 2011 Missouri bill would have done?)