The US minimum wage has been a common news topic lately – increasing its sound and fury since President Obama’s State of the Union proclamation of a rise in federal employee minimum wages to $10.10 (from $7.25). While obviously a contentious political issue, one question keeps coming up – will this help? As BofAML notes in a recent report, a simple back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that the rise in wages from a minimum wage increase would amount to fractions of a percentage point on macroenomic data. There simply are not enough people working at (or below, since some jobs are exempted) the minimum wage to have a noticeable impact on the total wage bill and in the end, there are just too few people, earning far too little, at the minimum wage to meaningful affect aggregate macroeconomic statistics. So why is he doing it?
The Chart below shows the limited coverage of minimum wages upon the labor force.
According to BLS data, in 2012 there were just over 129mn wage and salary earners in the US, and a little less than 3.6mn were paid at or below the federal minimum on an hourly basis. In other words, only about 2.8% of US wage earners were paid at or below the minimum wage. This share has risen in recent years, likely due to increases in the statutory minimum from 2007 and 2009, as well as the recession pushing some workers into low-paying jobs. Even restricted to just hourly workers, of which there were about 75mn in 2012, according to the BLS, less than 5% are paid at or below the minimum.
To figure out the effect of a minimum wage increase on wages in the aggregate, we have to make a few approximations for unavailable data. First, the share of workers at or below the minimum appears to have been trending slightly lower — as one might expect as the economy recovers — but let’s be conservative and assume it still stands at 2.8% today. Next, we need to figure out the share of wages, not persons, being paid at the minimum. Since those at the minimum wage are earning less than those above, less than 2.8% of wages are at the minimum — in fact, well less.
Chart 1 shows the minimum wage as a share of the prevailing hourly wage for private production and nonsupervisory workers. We plot this measure as it has a long history, which shows that the current share of around a third is not particularly high. The average wage across all workers in 2013 was about US$24/hour — nearly US$4/hour higher than production and non-supervisory workers.
But, as Chart 2 shows, average wages vary significantly across sectors — as do the relative sizes of each sector, shown as the share of total private sector hours along the horizontal axis.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the minimum wage does increase from the current US$7.25/hour to the proposed US$10.10/hour. That is a US$2.85/hour increase, or 39%! Surely that has to be inflationary?
Not necessarily. As a rough approximation, US$2.85 on a US$24 average hourly wage is nearly a 12% gain. But with just 2.8% of wages subject to the minimum, the overall impact is a 0.33% increase in average hourly earnings. This is very unlikely to be noticeable at all in the wage, let alone the inflation, data. If we use the 5.5% from the prior paragraph, the impact would be doubled, but still less than a percentage point increase in average hourly wages. Of course, these are very simple computations, but this exercise gives useful ballpark figures.
The minimum wage increases that have been enacted at the state level this year are smaller in size — the largest, a US$1.00/hour increase, brings the minimum wage for New Jersey to US$8.25/hour. This is only a little more than a 4% increase in the average hourly wage, so even if 8% of the workforce was affected, the impact on wages would still be just 0.33%.
In the end, there are just too few people, earning far too little, at the minimum wage to meaningful affect aggregate macroeconomic statistics
So one has to ask – if the rise in the minimum wage has begligble effects on growth or inflation and has the potential to price some out of the employment market – why is President Obama so insistent on its occurrence?