Friday, July 24, 2009

A Brief History of the Minimum Wage

"A Brief History of the Minimum Wage" by Laura Fitzpatrick was published in TIME magazine on July 24, 2009:

With the U.S. trillions of dollars in the hole, 70 cents an hour sounds like chump change. But it's a big boost for the millions of workers who earn that much extra as of July 24. The increase is the third and final uptick in a hike that has since 2007 boosted the federal minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25. In total, the extra $2 and change translates into a yearly raise of some $4,400 for a full-time minimum-wage worker, nosing his or her family of four above the poverty line.

The minimum wage was first instituted in Australia and New Zealand in the 1890s in response to frequent, bitter strikes and was adopted by Massachusetts in 1912 to cover women and children. With voters seeking a bulwark against the Great Depression, wage-hour legislation was an issue in the 1936 Presidential race. On the campaign trail, a young girl handed a note to one of Franklin Roosevelt's aides asking for help: "I wish you could do something to help us girls," it read. "Up to a few months ago we were getting our minimum pay of $11 a week...Today the 200 of us girls have been cut down to $4 and $5 and $6 a week."

Roosevelt rode back into office in part on a promise to seek a constitutional way of protecting workers; in 1923, the Supreme Court had struck down a Washington, D.C., minimum-wage law, finding it impeded a worker's right to set his own price for his labor. The first federal minimum-wage law, the Fair Labor Standards Act, passed in 1938, with a 25-cent-per-hour wage floor and a 44-hour workweek ceiling for most employees. (It also banned child labor.) Outside of Social Security, said Roosevelt, the law was "the most far-sighted program for the benefit of workers ever adopted." Wages must ensure a "minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency and general well-being," the act stipulated, "without substantially curtailing employment."

Ever since, however, critics and supporters have slugged it out over the minimum wage: some say it destroys jobs by making it too expensive to keep workers. University of California professor David Neumark estimates that the July 24 hike will end up costing some 300,000 jobs for young adults and teens by making their employment prohibitively expensive for enterprises already facing rapidly eroding profit margins.

Other economists note, however, that because a majority of minimum-wage earners work in outsourcing-resistant service jobs, businesses will have a hard time handing out pink slips en masse. Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley found that after an 80-cent New Jersey minimum wage hike in 1992, employment in the state's fast-food restaurants rose slightly faster than in Pennsylvania, where the minimum wage did not change. (The law's effects showed up, instead, in prices: the tab at New Jersey fast-food restaurants grew about 4% faster than at greasy spoons in Pennsylvania.) Instead of killing jobs, minimum wage supporters argue, the wage floor increases productivity and boosts consumer purchasing power. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that the July 24 hike to $7.25 will, over the course of the next year, pad consumer spending by more than $5.5 billion.

As a result of the sparring, the value of the minimum wage in real dollar terms has risen and fallen on political tides, peaking in 1968 when an hour's pay bought nearly 5 gal. (19 L) of gas. By 2006, it paid for less than 2 gal. (8 L); meanwhile, some states raised their own standards (Washington mandates $8.55 an hour). Thirty-one states will have to increase their minimum wages as a result of the July 24 increase, while 19 states and Washington, D.C. already had a minimum wage of $7.25 or higher.

Supporters of the boost say it will help the country's neediest at a time when they have been falling further and further behind. From 1973 to 2007, as the minimum wage fell 22% in real dollars, domestic corporate profits jumped more than 50%—bloating the gap between rich and poor and fueling calls for a $10-an-hour "living wage" by 2010. For now, though, an extra 70 cents is as good as it gets.

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