Three decades of research have led to a major rethink
Thus, though it may sound counterintuitive for a higher wage to lead to more employment, it makes sense if what the legislation is doing is pushing a wage kept artificially low by monopsony back to where it would be in a market where supply and demand were matching each other freely. People who may not have bothered to look for a job at $10 an hour may be drawn into a job market offering $15 an hour. Push the minimum wage significantly beyond that point, though, and jobs will indeed be lost as companies find labour too expensive to afford.
Once the role of competition in the labour market is accepted, the debate on minimum wages becomes more nuanced and more empirical. Gathering data is not easy. Researchers must consider whether to track jobs or workers, and whether to study certain groups, such as teenagers or the unskilled, or broader sectors. And the job market is affected by more than just minimum-wage rules. Constructing reasonable counterfactuals is hard.
Consider an example from Seattle. The city has been at the forefront of the “fight for $15” campaign that led to Mr Biden’s pledge, and its rapid wage rises have made it an attractive laboratory for economic studies, despite the fact, some grumble, that it is unrepresentative. A paper by Ekaterina Jardim and others at the University of Washington, published in 2017, found that minimum-wage increases in the city in 2015 and 2016 led to employers reducing hours in low-paid sectors. The average low-paid worker earned more per hour but, because they worked fewer hours, their monthly earnings dropped by $74—the equivalent of five hours’ pay.
That paper used aggregate data on hours and earnings by sectors. In a paper published in 2018, the same authors used administrative data to track individual workers rather than looking at averages. This time they found that low-paid workers saw their weekly earnings increase by $8-12 a week. The majority of that gain, though, was taken by low earners with above-median experience levels and some of it from workers making up lost hours worked in Seattle with additional hours elsewhere in Washington state.
In 2019 a review commissioned by the British government of more than 50 recent empirical studies into wage floors found the effect on employment to be generally muted, even with relatively ambitious increases. Yet some studies did find higher impacts. Arindrajit Dube, the author of the review, warned that the evidence base is still developing. It is, for instance, too soon to opine on South Korea’s 25% increase in its minimum wage between 2016 and 2018.
The effects of a wage floor can also be felt outside low-pay sectors. A preliminary study in 2019 of the impact of Germany’s minimum wage found it led to more reallocation of workers from smaller, lower-paying firms to larger, higher-paying ones. The same year an article in the Quarterly Journal of Economics found that the impact of minimum-wage laws on average earnings was amplified by small but important spillover effects higher up the earnings ladder. Employers tend to want to maintain some sort of wage differential for staff with more responsibility. So if the minimum wage boosts the pay of fast-food workers, then restaurants may also need to raise the pay of fast-food supervisors.
在低薪工种之外也能感受到最低工资的影响。2019年对德国最低工资制度影响的一项初步研究发现，它导致更多工人从较小的、薪资更低的公司转移到较大的、薪资较高的公司。同年发表于《经济学季刊》（Quarterly Journal of Economics）的一篇文章发现，最低工资立法在收入阶梯的更高处产生了虽小却重要的溢出效应，扩大了这类法律对平均收入的影响。雇主倾向于为那些肩负更多责任的员工维持某种工资差异。因此，如果最低工资提高了快餐工人的工资，那么餐馆可能也需要提高快餐主管的工资。
Who pays for the minimum wage? In theory a higher cost base could be passed on to consumers through higher prices, or absorbed by employers through lower profit margins. In reality the answer varies by market. In competitive sectors, such as fast food, research has found that a 10% increase in the wage floor pushes up burger prices by just 0.9%. In 2019 a study of supermarkets in Seattle found no impact on grocery prices from big increases.
Economists no longer think higher minimum wages are always bad. But that is not the same as saying they are always good. In 2018 a paper by Isaac Sorkin and others cautioned policymakers to take a longer-term view, rather than worry about short-term unemployment. Its authors found that if firms perceived a higher wage floor to be permanent and unlikely to be eroded by inflation, it could encourage them to automate more and decrease employment growth in the future. The idea that a minimum wage can sometimes lead to higher rather than lower employment does not mean it always will. When pushing up the floor, policymakers need to ensure they do not hit the ceiling. ■