Friday, April 21, 2017

Minimum Wage Increases: Plenty in 2017, But Fewer On the Way

On January 1 we saw a lot of states raising their lowest legal pay even further from the $7.25 federal bottom.  According to Karl Russell’s “A Higher Minimum Wage in 2017” (The New York Times, January 5), 29 states and the District of Columbia have compensation floors higher than the national, with concentrations on the Northeast and the West Coast, and 19 boosted them more, effective the beginning of the year.  Seven, with annual increases tied to inflation, lifted theirs 10 cents an hour or less, but in five – Arizona, Washington, Maine, Massachusetts, and Colorado – it jumped 99 cents or beyond.  The District’s, higher than any state at $11.50, did not change, but the top six, Massachusetts, Washington, California, Connecticut, Arizona, and Vermont, each went up 40 cents or more and are now at least $10.

However, the pace is heading for a slowdown.  Except for those indexing their minimum wages to inflation, only ten states have voted for future increases.  Of those, only California and New York, along with the District of Columbia, have committed to reaching $15 per hour.     
    
Will there be many more this year?  Three pieces published since then suggest it is unlikely.  The first, also in the New York Times, Noam Scheiber’s January 10th “Higher Minimum Wage May Have Losers,” noteworthy for appearing in a news outlet consistently in favor of raising it in the past, cited two studies, one at New York University showing that increasing minimum pay had the effect of making fewer working hours available, and one from Harvard Business School and Mathematica Policy Research concluding that such wage boosts were often followed by restaurants, especially ones rated low on the Yelp website, closing.  In this area, where controlled experiments of course cannot be conducted, all research results are controversial and unreplicable, but each study does become a data point.

The same conclusion was put forth by Forbes columnist Tim Worstall, in “Surprise, San Diego’s Minimum Wage Rise Appears To Be Killing Restaurant Jobs” (April 12th).  This author, previously and now against higher pay floors, wrote that “roughly… 50% of people in restaurants get the minimum wage and some 50% of the people who get it work in restaurants,” and cited a report that, after San Diego increased their minimum ahead of the rest of California to $11.50, 3,900 food service positions were either “lost, or never created in the first place.”  Worstall’s best point here is that higher mandated levels effect not only jobs that end but ones that would otherwise have started and didn’t.  Measuring those, though, is not easy. 

“Has the Movement to Raise the Minimum Wage Reached Its Limit?”  That question was explored by Scott Calvert and Eric Morath in The Wall Street Journal on April 6th.  They named Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh’s veto of a proposition that would raise the minimum to $15 by 2022, which matched the end of a similar effort made in Maryland’s Montgomery County, even though it borders the already-$15-approving District of Columbia.  Pugh, though a Democrat, said that although higher pay was good, she also wished for her “city to survive” – and who should know better?  Another point here is that providing a date by which a large minimum wage increase will take effect, especially if years in the future, gives automation companies a deadline by which they can make available robots and other machines costing less than that per hour.  It also affects longer-range business plans such as opening factories, one example of which Calvert and Morath gave. 


As I have written before, my bias is in the direction of more jobs.  It remains simple economics that requiring employers to pay more than they would otherwise need to do means they will offer fewer of them.  As these authors have shown, that not only manifests itself in jobs that are discontinued, but in those that were never created in the first place.  It is too early to get much data on this year’s minimum wage increases, but it will come in – expect more here as it does.  

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