Most of Benefits of Minimum Wage Increases Do Not Go to the Poor

(p. A11) A higher minimum wage raises wages of low-wage workers, and even though most evidence points to job losses from higher minimum wages, the evidence doesn’t point to widespread employment declines. Thus, consistent with a recent Congressional Budget Office report, many more low-wage workers will get a raise than will lose their jobs. But that argument is about low-wage workers, not low-income families. Minimum wages are ineffective at helping poor families because such a small share of the benefits flow to them.
One might think that low-wage workers and low-income families are the same. But data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that there is only a weak relationship between being a low-wage worker and being poor, for three reasons.
First, many low-wage workers are in higher-income families–workers who are not the primary breadwinners and often contribute a small share of their family’s income. Second, some workers in poor families earn higher wages but don’t work enough hours. And third, about half of poor families have no workers, in which case a higher minimum wage does no good. This is simple descriptive evidence and is not disputed by economists.
A historical perspective is instructive. Assembling Census Bureau data over nearly seven decades, Richard Burkhauser and Joseph Sabia have shown that in 1939, just after the federal minimum wage was established, 85% of low-wage workers (those earning less than one-half the private-sector wage) were in poor families. Such a high percentage implies that, in that year, the new minimum wage targeted poor families well. However, as the public safety net expanded, family structure changed and more people in families began working, this percentage fell sharply over time–to around 17% by the early 2000s.
In contrast, as of the early 2000s 34% of low-wage workers were in families that were far from poor, with incomes more than three times the poverty line. In other words, for every poor minimum-wage worker who might directly benefit from the minimum wage, two workers in families with incomes more than three times the poverty line would benefit.

For the full commentary, see:
DAVID NEUMARK. “Who Really Gets the Minimum Wage; Obama’s $10.10 target would steer only 18% of the benefits to poor families; 29% would go to families with incomes three times the poverty level.” The New York Times (Mon., July 7, 2014): A11.
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date July 6, 2014.)

For more of Neumark on minimum wages, see:
Neumark, David, and William L. Wascher. Minimum Wages. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008.

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