CONGRESS ENACTED the first federal minimum wage in 1938. A provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act, it covered about 6 million workers and set a wage floor of 25 cents per hour.
It also cost a lot of people their jobs. The Labor Department reported that as many as 50,000 employees, mostly poor Southern blacks, were thrown out of work within two weeks of the law's taking effect. In the months that followed, the carnage spread. "African Americans in the tobacco industry were particularly hard hit," wrote David Bernstein in his 2001 history of labor regulations and black employment. "In Wilson, N.C., for example, machines replaced two thousand African American tobacco stemmers in 1939."
The economic pain inflicted by that first minimum wage law hasn't stopped Washington from repeating the same folly over and over. In the 74 years since the lowest hourly wage at which most Americans could lawfully be hired was set at 25 cents -- the equivalent in purchasing power of about $4 today -- Congress has raised the amount 22 times. The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 an hour, and a push is underway to raise it yet again.
On Capitol Hill, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin has introduced legislation that would hike the minimum wage in three steps to $9.80 per hour, a 35 percent increase. A more radical proposal by Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois would increase the wage floor immediately, to $10 per hour.
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