On August 19, the Cato Institute released a study by me and Charles Hughes, The Work vs. Welfare Trade-Off, 2013: An Analysis of the Total Level of Welfare Benefits by State, showing that a family collecting welfare benefits from seven common programs – Temporary assistance for Needy Families (TANF), food stamps, Medicaid, WIC, public housing assistance, utilities assistance (LIHEAP) and free commodities – could receive more than what a minimum wage job would pay in 35 states. Critics responded: so raise the minimum wage.
Making work pay better, including the sort of entry level jobs that people leaving welfare can expect to find, is a terrific goal. Unfortunately, government has very little ability to force such increases. Attempts to simply mandate that businesses pay more, through increased minimum wages or living wage laws, as well as attempts to mandate employee benefits like health insurance (see Obamacare), primarily result in fewer jobs.
The amount of compensation a worker receives is more or less a function of his or her productivity. As Greg Mankiw, Chairman and Professor of Economics at Harvard University explains, “Economic theory says that the wage a worker earns, measured in units of output, equals the amount of output the worker can produce.” This somewhat oversimplifies, of course. There are other factors involved. But one can’t just arbitrarily declare a worker’s value.
The academic evidence on this point is pretty clear. A comprehensive review of more than 100 studies on the minimum wage by David Neumark and William Wascher for the National Bureau of Economic Research found that 85 percent of the studies they reviewed found negative employment effects. Newmark and Wascher concluded, “the preponderance of the evidence points to disemployment effects… [and] studies that focus on the least-skilled groups provide relatively overwhelming evidence of stronger disemployment effects for these groups.”
Indeed, evidence of employment losses goes all the way back to 1938 and first federally imposed minimum wage. The U.S. Department of Labor concluded that that first 25-cent minimum wage resulted in the loss of 30,000 to 50,000 jobs, or 10 to 13 percent of the 300,000 workers affected by the increase.
More recently, Michael Hicks of Ball State University looked at the impact of the July 2008 minimum wage increase on unemployment rates in the United States and concluded that a 10 percent increase in the minimum wage results in a roughly 0.19 percent increase in unemployment, meaning the loss of about 160,000 jobs.
Michael D. Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, heading research into a variety of domestic policies with particular emphasis on health care reform, welfare policy, and Social Security. His most recent white paper, "Bad Medicine: A Guide to the Real Costs and Consequences of the New Health Care Law," provides a detailed examination of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and what it means to taxpayers, workers, physicians, and patients.