Minimum Wage vs. EITC: Who Pays?

My co-blogger Mike Makowsky has a great post earlier this week about the minimum wage. Go read it before you read my post. When Mike said he was bothered by the notion that “the welfare state must be channeled through employment,” I very much nodded in agreement. It reminded me of a frustration I have with the entire debate about the minimum wage vs. the Earned Income Tax Credit as policy tools to help out the least well-off in society (yes, some argue they are complements, but let’s put that debate aside for the moment).

Here’s my frustration. In both the popular discussion and occasionally among academics/policy wonks, the difference between the minimum wage and the EITC is often framed this way: employers pay for the minimum wage, but the government pays for the EITC. I know there are important questions about the incidence of the minimum wage, but let’s assume that the proponents of higher minimum wages are correct, and the full cost comes out of business profits.

But the distinction between “employers” and “the government” is not a useful one. Where does the government get its revenue to pay for things like the EITC (or alternatively, food stamps)? They must come from society. There is some diversion of real resources from Group A to Group B. Group A is, in the case of the minimum wage, the owners of businesses — in other words, individuals with high incomes. Group B is the workers. But this is true in the case of both the minimum wage and the EITC!

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The Minimum Wage as Capitulation

It is an odd thing watching the pro-labor, pro-redistribution portions of our advocacy and activism classes capitulate to the notion that the the welfare state must be channeled through employment. When did this framing become so dominant? One of you just yelled “the Welfare Reform Act of 1996!” through my office window, but I think that’s wrong. I think the game was lost when we decided the minimum wage was a core policy signifier. There’s something irresistible about it– if there is one thing median voters everywhere seem to agree on is that their wage should be higher and their rent lower. Everything else is policy nerd gobbly-gook.

To my mind, the minimum wage is a policy failure strictly on the terms of (my own) left-of-center preferences. It is a victory of both political framing and strategy for coalitions against economic redistribution and the social safety net. That most of the left doesn’t even see this as a defeat makes it all the more devastating. Those outside the workforce are quietly placed outside the discussion and, in turn, are of secondary concern. More subtly, and perhaps more importantly, though, it builds into the policy construct a bargain that must be repeated and updated as national and local price levels change. Those repeated bargaining events force supporters to expend resources in each new iteration while, at the same time, giving their antagonists votes they can dangle when trying to secure support for their own pet policies. You want a higher minimum wage? Well, I’ve got a military procurement bill coming up next month that is slated to build 4 more F-16s in my district...

I subscribe to the belief that the failures of the US healthcare system most frequently stem from its connection to employment. Instead of heavily (or, yes, even entirely) subsidizing its purchase by consumers, we instead opted to grant a tax break to insurance provision by employers and here we are. The Affordable Care Act tried to weaken this connection, but still we are here. If you believe that health care is a human right, then connecting it to employment is a grievous error. If you believe a “living wage” is a human right, then why would you advocate making the same mistake again? We don’t live off wages, we live off consumption. If you want to guarantee an adequate standard of consumption, why would you include my employer as a go-between?

Which is not to say there isn’t political value to be mined from the $15 minimum wage debate. It has certainly crested the threshold of credible threat. It could be used as a political cudgel to bargain for a Universal Basic Income (UBI), and then bundled with the carrot: repeal the minimum wage entirely from the US law books in return for a $1,000 a month UBI that every citizen receives once they are no longer claimed as a legal dependent. For all the theoretic struggles the market might have with distortionary effects of a price floor (unemployment, low-cost discrimination) and substitution effects of a more expensive labor force (robots), I have all the faith in the world it can handle broad income effects just fine, thank you very much.

When economists talk about the minimum wage in bars, amongst themselves, without cheering and jeering onlookers, it is almost inevitably turns into a story of technocratic calibration. If we accept there is non-zero monopsony power, but also eventual disemployment effects, given the observed numbers, the optimal minimum wage is X% of the Zth percentile of the wage distribution. When these conversations happen on twitter, onlookers and participants are frequently less interested in calibration or generous in spirit. I’ve been on Twitter long enough to know that animal spirits are real, particularly when blood and memes are in the air.

Arguments over the minimum wage nearly always include references to an empirical literature that sometimes finds negative effects on employment while other times finds little to no disemployment at all, quickly followed by the theoretical point that there has to be some minimum wage above which employment would decline (or, at least, shift out of the legal sector). Part of what lets this debate persist are the modest sizes of past minimum wage increases. The one glaring exception I know of is when the Fair Labor Act of 1938 imposed a minimum wage that was roughly four times as large as standard worker wages in Puerto Rico, resulting in 65% unemployment . An exemption for Puerto Rico did not arrive for over two years and it is fair to say large portions of the economy were decimated. Future hikes had similarly negative, but far less cataclysmic, effects on Puerto Rican employment.

When the Fair Labor Act smashed into Puerto Rico with all the technocratic precision of a drunken mammoth, ~65% of the workforce ceased to be employed. But… do we really believe that 65% of people stopped working for a living? Of course not. Rather, the island labor market went gray. Under a hypothetically crushing minimum wage, employers will pay people in cash, off the books. They will hire family members, take them out of retirement or out of school. Yes, they’ll hire robots too, but I’m not really worried about 2nd order employment shifts favoring upper-middle class engineers. What I’m worried about is when whole classes of people enter the gray market (or markets even less legal), they no longer operate under the layering of legal and regulatory protections we often take for granted, especially ostensibly pro-market types who think that labor and safety standards are emergent phenomena. This sounds suboptimal to me, and probably to most labor advocates, but you know who it might sound great to? Libertarians who want the government entirely out of the workplace.

The minimum wage has become a left wing shibboleth, but that doesn’t make it good left wing policy. If anything, its one of the great right-wing gambits of the last 100 years. A policy that undermines its own ambitions at semi-regular intervals and inoculates the political marketplace against superior policies that would help far more people but, yes, would demand a larger tax bill. What more could Republican’s have asked for than a policy that holds the welfare state tax bill at bay and while handing ammunition to the Democratic coalition members purging their own ranks?

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.