In a national economy that seems continually on the verge of stagnation, one ill-advised question keeps returning to the center of a politically charged political economy — should Congress raise the federal minimum wage?
The answer is: no.
At best, raising the minimum wage by a dollar or two might be a symbolic expression of support for those workers on the lowest rung on the ladder of life. Think of it is as a Congressional "attaboy" for the lowest-skilled workers in the American economy.
Fortunately, hikes in the federal minimum wage generally have been modest enough that the economic disruption has been minimal.
In inflation-adjusted 2013 dollars, the minimum wage in 1960 was $7.78 an hour. Fifty years later, the minimum wage was almost identical: $7.83 an hour. Congress periodically gives a little by raising the rate, and then inflation takes a little by lowering the real minimum wage.
Doing something as foolhardy as doubling the minimum wage has never been on the table — until now.
Having gained little traction on the plan announced in February’s State of the Union Address to raise the minimum wage from its current $7.25 to $9, President Obama is now upping the ante to $10.10. That would be a 39 percent increase. Labor leaders scoff at even that. Some cities and states have passed minimum wages as high as $15 an hour. Protesters demanded this when they rallied last Thursday at about 100 fast-food restaurants across the country.
But a worker demanding a higher wage is different from a worker proving to his or her employer that his labor is worth more money.
Indeed, economists have long been troubled by a dramatic increase in the minimum wage.
In market economies, wages are determined by the productivity of labor. Sometimes employers need low-skilled workers, often teenagers or young hires with limited experience. In other cases, including knowledge-based industries, employers pay more for the skills they need to advance their companies.
Seen from the perspectives of the employee, the minimum wage isn’t the ending point – it’s the starting point. And every worker should make every effort to get education and training to qualify for higher-paying employment.
We really can't improve upon the recommendations made on this subject by The New York Times in its editorial headlined, "The Right Minimum Wage: $0.00," published Jan. 14, 1987:
“Perhaps the mistake here is to accept the limited terms of the debate. The working poor obviously deserve a better shake. But it should not surpass our ingenuity or generosity to help some of them without hurting others. Here are two means toward that end: Wage supplements [and] Training and education….
“The idea of using a minimum wage to overcome poverty is old, honorable - and fundamentally flawed. It's time to put this hoary debate behind us, and find a better way to improve the lives of people who work very hard for very little.”