Alan Reynolds

"What Is a Living Wage?" Jon Gertner's overstuffed cover story in The New York Times Magazine, offers a guess that, "Probably only around 3 percent of those in the workforce are actually paid $5.15 an hour or less." The last two words -- "or less" -- are absolutely critical, yet totally ignored as usual.

 The Internet leaves no excuse for guessing about what is "probably" true. Just type "Statistical Abstract" into Google, and then click on Section 12, Table 636: "Workers Paid Hourly Rates."

 Table 636 reveals that only 520,000 were paid the $5.15 federal minimum wage in 2004. That was merely four-tenths of one percent (0.4 percent) of total non-farm civilian employment -- far short of Gertner's 3 percent adventure in probability. Nearly three times as many U.S. workers (1,483,000) were paid less than the minimum wage. Among full-time workers, only 177,000 earned the $5.15 minimum wage in 2004, while 3.3 times as many (583,000) earned less than $5.15. As I mentioned, the words "or less" after $5.15 are there for a reason.

 Whenever the minimum wage has been increased, the most obvious result was an increase in the number earning less than the minimum.

 If we ignore the 45 percent of full-time U.S. employees who earn salaries rather than wages, it might almost be true that "around 3 percent" of those paid by the hour are actually paid $5.15 an hour or less. But that is only because 2 percent of those paid by the hour earn less than $5.15 an hour. And that raises an obvious question: How on earth is an increase in the minimum wage supposed to help the nearly 1.5 million people who are not earning that much in the first place?

 Gertner was handicapped in answering that question by his choice of sources. He lauds David Card and Alan Krueger, who managed to write an entire book about the minimum wage without even noticing 1.5 million people earning less than the minimum wage. Gertner even quotes Robert Pollin, whose appalling book, "The Living Wage," claimed, "Only 8.9 percent of the workforce actually earns the minimum wage." Either these experts are unaware of the Statistical Abstract, or they think facts are just a moral issue.

 When the minimum wage was last increased in 1997, the number of workers earning less than the minimum jumped to 3 million. The percentage of teens working for less than the minimum rose from 7.2 percent to 19.8 percent (it was 4.6 percent in 2004).

Alan Reynolds

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