Part of the reason American policy debates are so unsatisfactory is that they tend to be conducted in “silos”–with little or no recognition of how Policy A might affect issues B and C. This is particularly true of arguments about raising the minimum wage, which tend to focus exclusively on assertions that jobs will be lost and consumer prices will rise.
As cities have ignored those assertions and raised their minimum wages, data has emerged to dispel those concerns. According to economists at the University of California, Berkeley, who studied nine cities that raised the minimum wage in the past decade, higher wages have virtually no effect on employment; only restaurants, with their higher-than-average concentrations of low-wage workers, raised prices, but those raises were trivial.
What this wage discussion consistently misses is the fact that the effects of worker pay go far beyond job numbers and the pros and cons of an extra nickel for a Big Mac.
There is research, for example, suggesting that economic insecurity increases domestic violence and other criminal activity, and contributes to social discord generally. But the effect on our communities doesn’t stop there.
Economic development professionals spend their days trying to lure new employers to their cities and towns, and they are acutely aware of what those prospects look for when they are seeking a new location: an educated workforce and good schools, decent roads and public transportation to get workers and customers to and from their place of business, infrastructure (sewers, etc.) adequate for their particular needs, and more generally, an appealing “quality of life.”
Those community assets are supported by tax revenues. Poorly paid workers pay very little in taxes, of course, but that is a relatively minor part of the problem.
When large numbers of workers in an area are underpaid, when they make wages that barely allow them to subsist, they lack the means to purchase any but the most essential goods and services. Overall demand drops. When demand is weak, businesses suffer. (They also don’t need–or hire–more workers.) When the business’ bottom line declines, so do tax revenues.
Anyone who works for municipal government understands the dilemma: how do we stretch declining revenues? Hire fewer police and firemen? Fail to fill potholes and board up vacant buildings In neighborhoods? Grow classroom sizes? Collect garbage less frequently?
Declining revenues, blighted neighborhoods, fewer city services and a lower quality of life don’t attract new businesses. Economic development stalls.
The American economy depends upon consumption. I happen to think there are a number of unfortunate consequences of that economic model, but it is what we have. When significant numbers of residents in a city or town aren’t being paid enough to allow them to consume, the consequences go far beyond their kitchen tables.
As Kevin Drum has written, in an article for Mother Jones,
Obviously, there’s a limit to how high you can raise the minimum wage without harming the economy, but evidence suggests we’re nowhere close to that tipping point. The ratio between the United States’ minimum wage and its median wage has been slipping for years—it’s now far lower than in the rest of the developed world. Even after San Francisco increases its minimum wage to $15 next year, it will still amount to just 46 percent of the median wage, putting the city well within the normal historical range.
The bigger threat to the economy may come from not raising the minimum wage. Even Wall Street analysts agree that our ever-widening income inequality threatens to dampen economic growth. And according to a new study by the UC-Berkeley Labor Center, it’s the taxpayers who ultimately pick up the tab for low wages, because the federal government subsidizes the working poor through social-service programs to the tune of $153 billion a year.
How many public school teachers and police officers could we pay, how many streets could we pave, how many parks could we maintain with $153 billion dollars a year…