A MINORITY VIEW
BY WALTER E. WILLIAMS
RELEASE: WEDNESDAY, MARCH 23, 2005, AND THEREAFTER

MINIMUM WAGE, MAXIMUM FOLLY

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Senators Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Rick Santorum,R-Pa., both introduced proposals to increase the minimum wage from its current $5.15 an hour. Sen. Kennedy's proposal would have raised the minimum wage to $7.25 in three steps over 26 months, while Sen. Santorum's would have raised it to $6.25 in two steps over 18 months. Two weeks ago, both measures failed passage in the Senate.

Sen. Kennedy said, "I believe that anyone who works 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, should not live in poverty in the richest country in the world," after telling fellow senators that minimum wage workers earn $5,000 below the poverty line for a family of three. Sen. Santorum said, "I feel very comfortable that our proposal keeps the balance between the ability of lower-skilled employees to enter the work force at a wage in which they are compensated for the skills they bring to the job."

The idea that minimum wage legislation is an anti-poverty tool is simply sheer nonsense. Were it an anti-poverty weapon, we might save loads of foreign aid expenditures simply by advising legislators in the world's poorest countries, such as Haiti, Bangladesh and Ethiopia, to legislate higher minimum wages. Even applied to the United States, there's little evidence suggesting that increases in the minimum wage help the poor. Plus, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 2.2 percent of working adults earn the minimum wage.

The crucial question for any policy is not what are its intentions but what are its effects? One of its effects is readily seen by putting yourself in the place of an employer and asking: If I must pay $6.25 or $7.25 an hour to whomever I hire, does it make sense for me to hire a worker whose skills enable him to produce only $4.00 worth of value per hour? Most employers would view doing so as a losing economic proposition. Thus, one effect of minimum wages is that of discriminating against the employment of low-skilled workers.

For the most part, teenagers dominate the low-skilled worker category. They lack the maturity, skills and experience of adults. Black teenagers not only share those characteristics, but they are additionally burdened by grossly fraudulent education, making them even lower skilled.

Bureau of Labor Statistics unemployment data confirms the economic prediction about minimum wage effects. Currently, the teen unemployment rate is 16 percent for whites and 32 percent for blacks. In 1948, the unemployment rate for black teens (16-17) was lower (9.4 percent) than white teens (10.2 percent). Plus, black teens were more active in the labor force.

How might we explain that? How about arguing that there was less racial discrimination in 1948, or back then black teens were more highly educated than white teens? Of course, such arguments would be nonsense. The fact of the matter is that while there was a minimum wage of 40 cents an hour prior to 1948, it had been essentially repealed by the post-World War II inflation; however, with successive increases in the minimum wage, black teen unemployment rose relative to white teens to where it has become permanently double that of white teens.

If the minimum wage law has these effects, then how does it pass political muster? The current Social Security debate over private accounts gives us a hint. In the political arena, you dump on people who can't dump back on you. Few politicians owe their office to the youth vote. Despite the "concern for the children" malarkey they spout, it's voting age adults to whom politicians are beholden. It turns out that adults benefit from the discriminatory effects of minimum wages, and older adults benefit from Social Security intergenerational transfers.

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