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Unintended but foreseeable harms of the minimum wage

Understanding the minimum wage, and why an increase will be harmful to those it is meant to help, requires thinking beyond stage one.

Commentary by David R. Henderson in the August 1, 2006 Wall Street Journal shows how the unintended effects may harm those who are still working after an increase in the minimum wage:

… because the minimum wage does not make employees automatically more productive, employers who must pay higher wages will look for other ways to compensate: by cutting non-wage benefits, by working the labor force harder, or by cutting training. Interestingly, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a union-funded organization in Washington that pushes for higher minimum wages, implicitly admits the last two of these three. On its Web site, EPI states, “employers may be able to absorb some of the costs of a wage increase through higher productivity, lower recruiting and training costs, decreased absenteeism, and increased worker morale.” How would an employer get higher productivity and decreased absenteeism? By working the employers harder and firing those who miss work. Lower training costs? By training less.

Other things employers might to do compensate for higher labor costs include these:

  • Reduce non-wage benefits such as health insurance.
  • Eliminate overtime hours that many employees rely on.
  • Substitute machines for labor. We might see more self-service checkout lanes at supermarkets, for example.
  • Use illegal labor. Examples include paying employees under the table, or requiring work off-the-clock.
  • Some employers may be more willing to bear the risks of using undocumented workers who can’t complain that they aren’t being paid the minimum wage.
  • Some employers may decide that the risks and hassles of being in business aren’t worth it anymore, and will close shop.

Increasing the wellbeing of low-wage workers requires more work than passing a mere law.

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