Sunday, August 20, 2006

Happy 10th Anniversary

Posted By on Sun, Aug 20, 2006 at 1:36 PM

Today is the tenth anniversary of the last time the federal minimum wage was raised, to $5.15. In real terms the minimum wage is at its lowest point in half a century. Libertarians and other free marketeers like to make arguments that raising the minimum wage would somehow throw a rod in the engine of capitalism. Tennessee GOP gubernatorial candidate Jim Bryson, for instance, believes that it would stifle entry-level job growth, and certainly there is room for debate about the connection between a rising minimum wage and local markets for low-skilled labor. But the one thing minimum wage opponents like Bryson never seem to discuss is why it's okay for the lowest paid jobs in society—whatever they are and whoever might occupy them—to see an erosion in compensation.

As long as inflation (even mild inflation) exists, a stationary minimum wage means eroding pay in real dollars for jobs at that level. Minimum-wage skeptics will frequently talk about how those earning the minimum tend to be privileged part-time student workers, or about how economic mobility will lift minimum-wage workers into higher income brackets. They conveniently ignore evidence that many full-time workers, including heads of households, stand to benefit from a minimum-wage increase.

But even if we were to assume that every single minimum-wage earner is a part-time college kid from a middle-class household, the questions would remain: Why should the (real) compensation floor for low-paying jobs be allowed to fall endlessly? How does a civilized society that values economic growth and prosperity justify ever-declining real wages for the lowest-paid members of the workforce? How low would you allow the real minimum wage to go before encouraging government to step in?

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