Monday, January 06, 2014

What An Increase in Minimum Wage Means

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. That's works out to be $290.00 for a 40 hour week or $15,080.00 a year, excluding any unpaid time off. That's not much, and that's before taxes (in post-Depression 1938, when minimum wage was established under the Roosevelt Administration, the minimum wage was 25 cent an hour). Of course, minimum wage is a bit higher in the District of Columbia and 19 other states while four states have a lower minimum wage and five states (all Southeastern) have no minimum wage laws. President Obama favors an increase of the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. Fast food employees, as many of you know, have been protesting for an increase to $15.00 an hour. 13 states have increased their minimum wage effect January 2014. In Kentucky, State Senator Greg Stumbo (D-Prestonsburg) favors an increase in the minimum wage to around $10.00 an hour while other states are considering similar increases.

Many corporate CEOs are, naturally enough, opposed to an increase in the minimum wage, at least to $15.00. Some cite a statistic by the Bureau of Labor Statistics which states that most individuals earning minimum wage are not working adults supporting a family, but are primarily teenagers still living at home and, at least in part, still being supported by their parents; specifically, 24% of 3.6 million workers earning minimum wage, and another 25% were under 25 years of age. In addition, for those who are attempting to support a family, many if not most are qualified for some form of taxpayer based assistance like food stamps (SNAP---Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) or earned income tax credits for children.

With 3/4 of Americans calling for an increase in the minimum wage, advocates also cite CEO salaries in the US are now 357% over the average company worker; the highest in the world (some estimates put it closer to 495% when their total compensation package is taken in account). The top 20% of the richest people in America now control 89% of all wealth in this country. Now if that doesn't give you pause, consider that the top 1% of the world's richest control 46% of world's total wealth according to a Reuter's report released on October 9, 2013! In America, the top 1% control 40% of the nation's total wealth. Therefore, this excess of wealth needs to spread around proponents claim. Those on the Right argue that the wage gap is justified; it's just a part of the capitalist system. They further claim that it's corporate (and personal) profits that allow them to employ the majority of the nation's workforce.

But, what about from an economic perspective? What happens when there's an increase in minimum wage? Well, obviously a broad based income increase will result in an increase in purchasing power, at least temporarily. That means there will be a sudden demand for products; usually high end products such as cars, houses, as well as appliances and entertainment, but also to groceries, utilities, and even taxes. Typically, very little of the wage differential (the difference between the original wage and the new wage) will go into savings or similar investments, though some may find its way in paying down debt, statistically this tends to be minimum at best. Instead, overall debt tends to rise. As the economy adjusts to the influx of additional income, there is always a slight delayed rise in costs to offset the sudden rise in demand. However, once supply reaches a equilibrium with demand, the newly set increase in price will always adjust itself upward to match the new level of demand.

This generally tends to have two secondary actions. First, with the increase in demand, there will be a resulting delayed increase in retail costs as wholesale costs begin to rise to compensate for the declining level of supply and a rush to acquire raw material at a newer, higher premium prices to match the demand. Secondly, there's a short term increase of cost to the manufactures/producers in terms of wages and other internal costs as companies attempt to catch up with demand. This could be simply increasing work hours through overtime or additional shifts; perhaps even temporary hiring. However, as prices of merchandise rise, the demand will begin to drop until it reaches a price equilibrium. This results in less demand for the product and a corresponding reduction of hours to original levels, or even a drop in hours worked.

To put it another way, there's a short term benefit to the employees but as demand increases, the costs rise to meet the level of supply, so that in the end, most everyone is back where they started from but everything has increased in price and in some case, more than by the percentage of the wage increase. Some companies may find that the demand for whatever it is they do has dropped (especially if it's considered a non-essential item). The result will be a reduction in hours or workforce, or even closure. Therefore, employees may be no better off than before; some could even be far worse off. So, how do we get out of this predicament?

A lot of politicians like to talk about increasing minimum wage since it sounds like they're "giving" the people something for free. The reality, however, is that they're not giving them anything. Companies have to raise prices to offset the increase in wages. The money has to come from somewhere after all doesn't it? And you can sure bet it won't be coming out of profits margins. With increased prices, demand could drop. This may mean layoffs or a cutback in work hours with employees having to pick up the slack. For those not affected by the wage increase, they'll be forced to pay more as prices increase while not bringing home any more money. This is especially true for those who are unemployed or on a fixed income.

Free market advocates (or libertarians for that matter) might call for doing away with the minimum wage and allowing demand compete with supply. Employers offering the best salary (and benefits) would attract the most potential employees while those who don't will be forced to adjust the wages upward to attract workers. Of course, those who, at least initially, offer better wages will attract the most potential employees, thus the supply will obviously exceed the available positions which will, in turn, result in employees willing to work for less money in hopes of getting at least an acceptable wage while the employer would get the most qualifed individuals at the lower wage.

Perhaps, then, the best solution would be mandatory increases in wages tied to the inflation. As prices "naturally" rise due to demand over time, wages would match the increase accordingly. Such an increase would simply keep pace with the change in prices and would have little to no adverse affect since the wage adjustment would apply to everyone. A secondary solution would be the complete overall of the US tax code and the adoption of a national consumption tax in lieu of a federal income tax. People could manage their level of taxation based on their purchases. The rich would obviously pay more since they tend to buy more while the poor would pay less since they buy less. Nevertheless, an increase in the minimum wage comes with a price.

Minimum Wage Laws by States

Fast Food Workers Cry Poverty Wages

13 states raising pay for minimum wage workers

Disclosed: The Pay Gap Between CEOs and Employees

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