Two Papers on the 1966 Minimum Wage Increase

Continuing on the theme of last week’s minimum wage increase in Florida, there are two interesting papers recently accepted for publication that both cover the 1966 Fair Labor Standards Act. This law extended the federal minimum wage to a number of previously uncovered. Crucially, the newly covered industries employed a large number of African-American workers.

The two papers agree on some points, such as that African Americans saw large wage gains following the increase. But was there a disemployment effect? Here is where the papers differ.

Ellora Derenoncourt and Claire Montialoux’s paper “Minimum Wages and Racial Inequality” is forthcoming in the Quarterly Journal of Economics. Here is what they find: “We can rule out significant disemployment effects for black workers. Using a bunching design, we find no aggregate effect of the reform on employment.”

Martha J. Bailey, John DiNardo, and Bryan A. Stuart’s paper “The Economic Impact of a High National Minimum Wage: Evidence from the 1966 Fair Labor Standards Act” is forthcoming in the Journal of Labor Economics. They find “some evidence shows that disemployment effects were significantly larger among African-American men, forty percent of whom earned below the new minimum wage in 1966.”

So who is right? Let me clearly state here that both of these papers are very well done, both in their methods and in their assembling of historical data. But I think there is a key difference in the samples they analyze: Derenoncourt and Montialoux’s paper only includes workers aged 25-55. Bailey and co-authors use a broader age range, 16-64, which importantly includes teenagers (this is discussed in Section D of their online appendix).

Since teenagers and other young workers are the ones we suspect are going to be most impacted by the minimum wage (much of the literature focuses on teenagers), the exclusion of workers under 25 seems like a curious omission, and a reason I tempted to believe the results of Bailey and co-authors. But Derenoncourt and Montialoux do try to justify their choice of age group: 1. workers under 21 were subject to a different minimum wage; and 2. workers under 25 were subject to the draft for the Vietnam War.

So once again, you might ask, who is right? I will admit here that I don’t know. Standard economic theory suggests that disemployment effects will result from a legal minimum wage (I fully acknowledge the emerging literature on monopsony power, but I maintain this is still not the standard analysis), and especially so for teenagers and young workers. So I am skeptical of any analysis which excludes these workers, whatever other merits it may have.

Here’s my take: we probably can’t tell much about how the minimum wage will impact young workers today based on these studies. If Derenoncourt and Montialoux’s reasons for removing young workers are indeed sound, then we aren’t really testing the question most economists are interested in today (so I would caution against their attempt to apply the results to labor markets today). But that doesn’t mean these aren’t interesting papers to read on an important change in the history of minimum wage laws in the US!

Florida’s Minimum Wage Experiment

One of the more interesting results from last night’s election comes out of Florida: voters appear to have narrowly approved an increase of the minimum wage in stages to $15/hour in 2026 (Florida has a 60% requirement for ballot measures to pass, and the current vote total is just above that threshold).

Florida is not the first state to approve such an increase to $15/hour: 7 states have already done so, though no state is yet at that level. California will hit $15 first in 2022. Several US cities, such as New York and Seattle, as well as the “city-state” of Washington, DC are already at $15, but these are generally very high wage cities.

What makes Florida the most interesting of the states to try very high minimum wages is that Florida is not a high wage state. Once the minimum wage is fully phased in (in 2026), the minimum wage will be about 75% of Florida’s median wage (it was $17.23 in 2019). That’s much higher than other states: California will be the next highest at about 66%, with Oregon next around 64%. Oregon will be close to $15, but perhaps a little below, as they index their minimum wage for inflation.

(To make these estimates I am using 2019 median wage data from the BLS OES wage data and assuming 2% annual wage growth. This may not be exactly right, but it’s probably close enough.)

Also important to note in Florida: the median wage is not $17.23/hour all over the state. Several MSAs in Florida currently have a median wage at or even below $15 (Sebring, Florida is the lowest at around $14/hour). There will be some wage growth over the next 6 years in those areas, but still this means that the minimum wage will be applicable to roughly half the labor force.

That brings up another interesting legal question: will the minimum wage apply to salaried workers making less than $30,000 per year? The way the law is written, probably not, but logic would seem to dictate that it should. Otherwise, what’s to stop an employer from hiring an employee on a $2,000/month contract, equivalent to $12/hour for a full time worker?

The minimum wage debate among economists consumes a vast literature, and I am no expert on it, and will make no attempt to summarize it here. But Florida seems to be breaking new territory. My little state of Arkansas currently holds the “record” for a US state starting in 2021, with a minimum wage of $11/hour which will be about 67% of the median wage (and about 78% of the median wage in Hot Springs, Arkansas). Florida’s experiment will certainly give economists a new experiment to study.

Arin Dube, one of the leading researchers of the minimum wage and a strong advocate of raising the wage, suggested in a recent policy paper that a good minimum wage for Florida would be around $9/hour, given their wage distribution. That was in 2014 dollars, so we can roughly adjust that up to $11-$12 in 2026 dollars. Florida voters have chosen to go well beyond that recommendation.