The Minimum Wage and Inflation

Does minimum wage cause job loss, inflation? Income inequality is an issue important to everyone. The benefits of increasing the minimum wage are greater than first thought. #minimumwage #incomeinequality #fairwage #workingwageEconomic growth is pushing towards 10 years as of this writing. The 2008-09 recession was deep and slow in recovery. Fewer jobs at lower wages coupled with the long time frame unemployed people had to wait to even get a job at any wage caused tempers to flare. The minimum wage was raised in 2007, 2008 and 2009 to the current federal rate we have today.

Jobs available as the recession eased were not of the same quality as jobs lost. More workers were among the working poor, earning minimum wage or close to it. Eventually a vocal crowd demanded a $15 an hour minimum wage. It all sounded good. And fair to workers making less. Business owners also made powerful points. In the end nothing of consequence came of the movement. The expanding economy lifted wages, nullifying the demands of the activists. Better jobs with higher wages started appearing, too. People used to a higher income had greater opportunity to explore a pay increase at a new employer if their current employer refused..

The issues never went away; they’re just hibernating until the next opportune moment. Many myths cropped up during the debate. Does a modestly higher minimum wage cost jobs? Does it increase automation, eliminating the job completely? Do worker deserve a fair wage? A higher wage than $10 or so?

I did some research to see if the minimum wage causes inflation, another of the complaints against increasing the minimum wage. Of course, most people agree workers should be paid fairly. We all want to earn more for our efforts. Even business owners understand employees need a living wage.

We will explore some of these myths and how they affect your personal finance decisions. As with most issues, the answers aren’t as clear as activists claim; businesses, either. The debate gets steeped in politics when economic matters are considered. This article will explain the truth behind the myths and what government and you can do about it.

First we address the myths.




Myth #1: The Minimum Wage would be $22.50 an Hour if it kept Up With Inflation

At first I accepted this claim at face value. After thinking about it for a while I began to doubt the claim. Protesters claimed the minimum wage would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $22.50 an hour if the minimum wage had kept up with inflation from a certain date. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof! Fortunately we have actual data to determine if the minimum wage now is lower than in the past, adjusting for inflation.

I will do the heavy lifting for you. I’ve included links if you wish to dig deeper into how the minimum wage has fared against inflation. We will test this claim by looking back to 2009, 1990 (a date protesters sometimes used in their claim), 1978 (another date used by protesters) and all the way back to the beginning on October 24th, 1938 when the first federal minimum wage was instituted in the U.S.

Disclaimer: Several states have their own higher minimum wage. We are discussing the federal minimum wage only. Minimum wage data was used from the U.S Department of Labor and the Consumer Price Index-U (all urban areas) was used in calculating the inflation adjusted minimum wage.  We will not address salaried workers, restaurant workers or individuals under age 20 first starting a job, all of which have a different minimum wage.

Has the minimum wage kept up with inflation? The answer might surprise you. And if the minimum wage is increased at the right time is sparks economic growth while crushing deflation. An honest day's pay for an honest day's work. #work #wages #minimumwageAdjusted Minimum Wage from 2009: The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. There are other rates based on age and occupation. To keep this post brief I will focus on 1938 Act until 1978 where I use the all nonexempt workers rate.

The federal minimum wage was last increased, effective July 24th, 2009. The CPI index stood at 215.351 in July of 2009. The latest reading for June 2018 is 251.989. The index has increased 36.638 points since the last minimum wage increase, or about 17%. If the minimum wage were indexed to inflation the minimum wage would now stand at $8.48 per hour. My guess is that in the near future the federal minimum wage will be increased to $8.50 – $9.00 per hour. This would accurately reflect the increase in average consumer prices over the time period.

So, the argument the minimum wage should be $22.50 doesn’t work calculating from 2009.

Adjusted Minimum Wage from 1990: The minimum wage was increased on April 1st, 1990 to $3.80 per hour. The CPI was 128.9. The CPI increased 123.089 points since April 1990, or a 95.49% increase. Adding 95.49% to the then minimum wage of $3.80 gives us $7.43 an hour, pretty close to the current minimum wage. Maybe we need to go back further.

Adjusted Minimum Wage from 1978: The minimum wage was increased at the beginning of 1978 to $2.65 an hour. The CPI stood at 62.5 in January, 1978. This is an increase of 189.489 points or 303%. Increase the then current minimum wage of $2.65 by 303% and we get $8.03 an hour. Hmmm. Maybe we need to go back all the way to the beginning.

Adjusted Minimum Wage from 1938: The first federal minimum wage in the U.S. began October 24, 1938 at $.25. Yes, that is 25 cents an hour. The next year they raised it to $.30 an hour. We will still use that original minimum wage starting point to determine if the minimum wage is worse today than it was in the past.

The CPI stood at 14 in October of 1938. The index has climbed an additional 237.989 points since. The CPI is a whopping 18 times what it was in October 1938! This means the original minimum wage, adjusted for inflation was {drum roll}: $4.50 an hour.

Oh-oh. The claim minimum wage should be over $20 an hour now doesn’t hold up. But this isn’t the only myth batted around.




Myth #2: Increasing the Minimum Wage Causes Job Loss

This scare tactic crops up every time a minimum wage increase is mentioned. As you can see from Myth #1 above, the minimum wage has been a minimum burden on business since the beginning. Since 1938 technology and productivity have increased massively. If business can’t keep up with the barely minimal minimum wage increasing at somewhere in the vicinity of the inflation rate, business needs to do something else.

Does increasing the minimum wage cost jobs? Well, business tells us if we increase the minimum wage business will automate the jobs away, eliminating the entire labor cost. McDonald’s and Wal-Mart gave us this song and dance. For the record, in the last 10 years Wal-Mart has replaced a large percentage of cashiers, requiring customers to check themselves out. McDonald’s is replacing workers fast with automated order taking (similar to Wal-Mart’s check-out kiosks) and cooking robots. The minimum wage remained static for a decade and automation happened anyway! The minimum wage had little to no bearing on that corporate decision; finding qualified workers willing to work at minimal wages was.

Of course, the economic professor in me says that when prices increase, demand drops. It’s Macro Economics 201 (or is it 202, it’s been a long time since my college course). A higher minimum wage does reduce jobs minimally! Wages tracking inflation is NOT a REAL wage increase. So what is business talking about? They’re talking about maximizing profits on the back of minimum wage workers. I get it, but it’s still a myth jobs are lost when wages increase. Higher wages increase inflation, not demand for labor. Demand for labor is based on economic conditions.

Myth #3: Workers Paid Minimum Wage Aren’t Getting a Working Wage

Even business owners agree a person should be paid a reasonable wage for their labor. The question revolves around “working wage”. Are workers paid near minimum or minimum wage paid a working wage? Well, I’ll be the first to admit $7.25 an hour isn’t a lot and lacks the motivational ability to move the crowds. For young people starting out its fine, but even then, what’s the motivation to perform maximum when the pay is minimum? Just asking.

But the minimum wage isn’t the only source of income for these workers. The tax code provides an Earned Income Credit for workers with low income. The EIC is a refundable credit and tax-free to the recipient. Many states also add to the federal Earned Income Credit.

All this combined is still hard time. Full-time (40 hours per week) at $7.25 an hour is only $290 per week. Ouch! Payroll taxes take 7.65% off the top. Good thing there is an Earned Income Credit! This equates to $15,080 a year without a pay increase in site.

I never said it was pretty. Then again, the minimum wage was never called a working wage (unless they said it back in 1938).




The Federal Reserve’s Money Printing Problem

Now we can put some of this knowledge to work.

Interest rates peaked well into the double digits in the early 1980’s. Rates have steadily declines, with only temporary increases, since. Anyone under age 35 has never lived through a serious increase in inflation and/or interest rates! This is nearly two generations who have never experienced how bad, bad can get.

We've been looking for income inequality in the wrong place. The minimum wage can level the playing field, even for those earning much more. Equal pay for equal work. The minimum wage and inflation are a correlation. #inflation #wages #minimumwage #equalpay #equalrights #equalopportunityFrom the early 1980s until the mid-2000s the Federal Reserve was able to nudge the economy along by lowering interest rates through a variety of lending facilities. The Great Recession which started in 2008 brought interest rates to zero and the economy still only limped along. The solution the Fed settled on was Quantitative Easing where the Fed bought up massive quantities of Treasuries and mortgage securities. The buying was in the trillions! The Fed balance sheet swelled from around $800 billion to the $4.5 trillion neighborhood. And they couldn’t get a pulse from inflation no matter how many smelling salts were used.

I’ve argued in the past on the reasons why all the money printing around the world didn’t cause runaway inflation. In short, much of the newly created money never entered the economy. Money center banks and central banks around the world stuffed their vaults with digital cash. It made the books look better so banks could lend if necessary. The result? The economy limped slowly out of the Great Recession in fits and starts, but finally grew to record length proportions. It’s been a long recovery and new heights have been reached.

But interest rates are still very low. If another recession arrives (some might say we are due), the Fed will not have much room to maneuver. If they try the old “print more money” strategy used last time it could compound the issues.

This is where the Fed and elected officials need to review the data for additional options. And I have a powerful one.




Getting Inflation (and Economic Growth) the Federal Reserve Wants without Printing More Money

The chart you see in this section I put together with data from the U.S. Department of Labor, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics and InflationData.com. When I asked the question: Does increasing the minimum wage cause inflation? I had to dig further than the available charts. It was necessary to determine if there was a correlation between inflation and the minimum wage. If there is a correlation the monetary and fiscal implications are significant. It also effects personal finance decisions in a serious way.

This exercise is more than a macro-economic research project. If a correlation exists, the Federal Reserve and Congress will want to act appropriately in the future. It also means everything we know about the rate of the minimum wage is wrong!

If you examine the chart closely there does appear to be a modest correlation between a minimum wage increase and the rate of inflation. However, the correlation isn’t clear. In the 1970’s, the increasing minimum wage supported inflation rather than lead to inflation. In the Great Recession it seems like the minimum wage increase had no effect at all.

In the same way astrophysicists glean the data for a slight wobble in a star to determine if a planet orbits said star, I had to push away all the noise and look for a wobble in the inflation data. Productivity, Fed policy and economic conditions provided plenty of background noise to distract for the data. But I did find a wobble.

Raising the minimum wage at the right time benefits workers and employers. A fair wage,a working wage is vital to a strong economy. The $15 minimum wage movement was right, even if their timing was wrong. #$15anhour #workingwage #inequality #wages #salary The minimum wage was instituted during the tail end of the Great Depression. Adjusted for inflation, the first federal minimum wage was around $4.50, but a year later it increased to an inflation adjusted $5.40 an hour. This new minimum wage was started in what many call the second Great Depression. From 1929 to 1932 the economy collapsed at a rapid pace. Recovery was incomplete by 1937 when the Fed started raising interest rates causing the economy to once again slow and the stock market to decline hard.

Then we get a new minimum wage in 1938 and prices start to climb. The data used in the chart only includes average inflation for each year. The data detail (found using the link above from InflationData.com) reveals a more immediate response. The chart makes it look like the minimum wage could have caused some inflation, but in reality World War II had a lot to do with the price levels at the time.

Deflation was a serious issue early in the Great Recession. Prices were actually declining! Inflation is bad, but deflation makes it incredibly hard to spur economic growth since waiting to purchase a good or service is likely to be cheaper tomorrow.

The Fed had its hands full with declining prices, high unemployment and the banking industry in ruins. Interest rates dropped to zero percent. Some countries experimented with negative interest rates to no avail. The economy was growing at an anemic pace (still declining in some countries) with virtually no inflation. Creating massive quantities of new money didn’t do the trick hoped for. It in the end did save the day, but at what cost. The next time we need help from monetary policy we are out of bullets. Do we keep creating more money? How far do we push the economic system out of balance? What if we can’t kick the can further down the road?

The wobble is in the data! Increasing the minimum wage does cause mild inflation very quickly. Unfortunately, the lift is short lived. But it is another planning tool for the government and a key point you, kind readers, need to understand.

The minimum wage was increased during the Great Recession and it kept prices stable. Only after the wage increase subsided into the past did prices start to fall. The printing press was all we had. Even in the second leg of the Great Depression the new minimum wage didn’t harm the economy. Few jobs, if any, were lost. Prices started to increase, encouraging demand and production, creating even more jobs.

Armed with this information the government should avoid raising the minimum wage during economic “good times”. Rather, when business says they can least afford it is when it needs to be done. Inflation is sparked by demand. Since the minimum wage is increased after long periods of flat lining, the increase tends to be a larger than average percentage. People earning minimum wage spend all their paycheck and quickly. The added demand encourages more production and helps reduce deflationary pressures.

How does this affect you? Well, the best time to increase the minimum wage is when the most people need it. Myth #2 is clear; increasing the minimum wage reduces very few jobs. Business can afford an increased minimum wage during an economic slowdown. It’s been done before without serious disruption. It also lays the foundation to renewed economic growth and increased business profits. It’s in business’s best interest to raise the minimum wage as the economy begins to cool. This encourages more demand while spurring mild price inflation; a catalyst encouraging continued growth.

You can use this information in your personal finance decisions as well. An increase in the minimum wage will increase business activity, a good sign for investors. If everyone digs in their heels and refuses to increase the minimum wage when this data suggests its value, get ready for a long economic war with no winner until somebody blinks.

 

 

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Keith Taxguy

8 Comments

  1. JD@WealthNotRetirement on August 6, 2018 at 9:05 am

    Another solid post, Keith. Even though I’m well aware of inflation and all that it implies/affects, I’ve never overly studied it. This “dummies” explanation was interesting (historical index comparison), and it’s increased my desire to study it a bit more.

    Based on your analysis, minimum wage is just about where it should be, but I swear I could do MORE with the $7.25/hour now than I could the $3.15/hour I made when I was 16 and 17 in high school (1984/1985). I used to work 4 hours per day during my Junior and Senior years (I was in DECA – Distributive Education if anyone is familiar). That amounted to roughly $252/month then, and now it would be $580/month. I remember clothes being really expensive back then. Now, with the internet especially, you can buy clothing cheap if you look hard enough. And for the folks saying $15/hour+ should be minimum wage, at $15 that would be $1200/month. Do you know what a teenager could do with $1200/month? That’s a lot of dough for part-time work!

    >>The minimum wage remained static for a decade and automation happened anyway!

    I would only slightly disagree with this one statement. The automation would have happened at SOME POINT in the future, but I believe it was pushed/accelerated, because these types of places (like McDonalds) were concerned of costs across-the-board if some ridiculous wage were enforced nationwide. And I know if costs DID increase, they could simply increase the cost of a hamburger to cover it, but most people don’t look at it that way. That’s the problem with increasing minimum wage anyway, is most EVERYTHING will inflate along with it and wipe out the increased wage.

    Sorry to ramble… I enjoy this topic.

    • Keith Taxguy on August 6, 2018 at 9:18 am

      It was a nice ramble, JD. I didn’t clearly enunciate in the post that automation accelerates as wages increase. At the same time, I never heard anyone pulling six figures worry his pay increase will decrease demand for his type of job. Automation, when it is cost effective, will be implemented, regardless the level of minimum wage.

      Glad you enjoyed, JD. I was worried I was getting a bit to technical for a mainstream blog. It was an itch I had to scratch so I clawed myself raw. I wanted to dig deeper, but I had to keep the post under 3,000 words and at a level where most readers could enjoy the post without a serious financial/economics background. I think you’re right, BTW, on how far MW goes today versus the 1980s, when we both joined adulthood.

  2. Brian McMan on August 7, 2018 at 8:37 am

    Absolutely brilliant article, but why wait for a downturn, let’s get after it and cause that mild inflation as soon as possible!

    So much talk about wages, when all we minimum wage workers really want is to be educated, trained, or re skilled to be more valuable to the retailers and the fast food companies that we work for.

  3. Joey Graziano on August 8, 2018 at 10:53 am

    Thanks for the analysis.

    Two things:

    1. American imports – As you can see on the link below, the US dependence on goods abroad has increased over the years. Increasing minimum wage will increase prices, that’s a fact. Increasing prices (in any form minimum wages, tariffs etc) in dire times hurts the consumers purchasing ability. Decreased purchasing, cascades into other areas that are not positive for economic growth. The reason why I point to the American imports is because back in the 20s 30s and even 60s most items consumed were American made. Meaning the price for logistics left lower overhead. Now that the US dependence on imports has greatly increased, the price of everything we consume is likely to rise with any increase to the minimum wage. So the impact of raising prices hurts the American bank account more than it did years ago.

    2. American wages aren’t increasing or at least they aren’t matching economic growth (link below). So, back in the 20s 30s and even 60s the wages were increasing at a faster rate than that of today.

    Summary:
    Comparing the past to the future, with regards to minimum wage, is not an apples to apples comparison. Due to the two factors mentioned, the impact of increasing prices will hurt the economy more than it did years ago.

    Please tell me where I am wrong.

    Reliance on imports link:
    https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NE.IMP.GNFS.CD?view=chart

    US Wages:
    https://tradingeconomics.com/united-states/wage-growth

  4. Michael on August 9, 2018 at 8:21 pm

    I never understood the argument that McDonalds should pay $15/hr to a new employee. People don’t realize that the entry level jobs at McDonalds aren’t supposed to be careered positions. They should only be stepping stones to a ‘real job’ and have high turnover. If workers there need $15/hr to survive, what about anyone that starts out in a job where $15/hr is a goal and the work is actually hard or physically demanding.

    If a McDonald’s hamburger is being made at $15/hr, then what are people going to do when the basic necessities of life have pricing that shoots to the moon. Then the wheel will turn again with the same circular logic. Just because you can pay someone that, doesn’t mean the numbers exist in a vacuum. It has a direct and negative impact about other things that society as a whole has deemed more important.

  5. mary on August 15, 2018 at 6:25 am

    I’m sorry but I can’t agree with the comments here. The “myth #2” is not a myth and your discussion is horribly ignorant. It is a long held truth throughout economics that the minimum wage reduces employment. Only someone who know absolutely nothing about economics, about life, really would think otherwise, unless the person has a political agenda.

    And the topic of supply and demand is microeconomics, not macro.

    Maybe you should stick to the tax code.

  6. Justin on September 10, 2018 at 12:29 pm

    First time reader – really like the blog!

    But I’m with Mary here. Your conclusion just doesn’t follow from any argument you made. You seem to argue that job automation occurs regardless of the minimum wage and then infer that increases in minimum wages don’t increase unemployment. There are two issues here. The first is logical. A can occur without B does not imply that B doesn’t cause A. For example, if A is smoking and B is death, this is clear to see. We need to instead think about the counterfactual – would automation have increased even more with a higher minimum wage? And second, automation is not the only channel by which minimum wages can reduce employment.

    There is actually a large literature in economics addressing the question. The results are mixed, but the most recent and credible studies support the idea that minimum wages, at least at sufficiently high levels, do increase unemployment. They use the recent minimum wage increase in Seattle as a natural experiment. This applies to minimum wages in the range of $10-$15 per houd. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/06/26/new-study-casts-doubt-on-whether-a-15-minimum-wage-really-helps-workers/?utm_term=.fe4f7f196654 for an overview. Yes, some people contest the results. But from inside the profession, I can tell you that a lot of labor economists consider this to be the most convincing study on this issue.

  7. Matthew on October 18, 2018 at 9:58 am

    Good article.
    Still glosses over(ignores) the CPI “basket of goods” being manipulated to maintain a false standard.
    The CPI is the issue in your figures.
    What made up the CPI when minimum wage was put into place?
    What has changed about the CPI “Basket of goods” at each of those year markers you claim to have myth busted.
    Based on what the CPI Basket was then to today?
    When the protein was a roast being downgraded to the cost of Hamburger that you would use to make dog food from.
    And the Cost of heating oil and gas are completely removed, it creates false narrative that says the cost of “living” at the basic level has not changed.
    Many more qualified people have addressed this over years of research.
    But “that one” omission is where you lost me.
    But you have a narrative to maintain for those who fund your Job.
    I understand. We all do it to some degree.
    But this one is fatal in its flaws.

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