The last several decades have been especially hard on American workers in jobs that pay the minimum wage. Adjusted for inflation, the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour today is 23 percent lower than it was in 1968. If it had kept up with inflation and with the growth of average labor productivity, it would be $25 an hour.
Congressional Democrats have proposed legislation to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and index it to inflation, and President Obama signaled support in a recent speech highlighting the economic and political dangers of growing income inequality. Predictably, opponents of an increase in the minimum wage are once again invoking the hackneyed warning that it will lead to higher unemployment, especially among low-skilled, low-wage workers who are the intended beneficiaries.
I heard the same refrain in 1996 when I served as chairwoman of President Bill Clinton’s National Economic Council, and he worked with congressional Democrats to raise the minimum wage to $5.15 an hour at a time when it had fallen in real terms to a 40-year low. To hear Republican opponents and lobbyists for retailers and fast-food companies, we were about to inflict a cold-hearted fate on young people and minority workers. The same chorus is voicing the same dire predictions today.
As it happened, the United States experienced a spectacular boom in employment and prosperity from 1996 to 2000. Indeed, these years proved to be a rare and all-too-brief period when incomes improved at every wage level. Contrary to the warnings of the naysayers, a higher minimum wage did not impede robust employment growth; it did contribute to healthy income gains for low-wage workers.
Since then, a raft of meticulous economic research, including work by David Card and Alan B. Krueger, who served as chief economist at the Labor Department in the Clinton administration and more recently as the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Obama administration, has decisively demolished the old shibboleths. The weight of the evidence consistently finds no significant effects on employment when the minimum wage increases in reasonable increments.