Sunday, March 16, 2014

How best to help low-wage workers

President Obama has made two proposals to help low-wage workers: an increase in the minimum wage and expansions in eligibility for overtime.  On the minimum wage front, he already has increased it for federal contractors and wants Congress to approve a $10.10 minimum wage for all.  Economists are fairly split on the merits of increasing the minimum wage; to get a good idea of how split see these two links from Greg Mankiw (hundreds are in favor, hundreds are opposed).

As for overtime, employers hire workers as long as the extra revenue they generate offsets the cost of the worker.  Employees with supervisory responsibilities are not eligible for overtime if they make more than $455 a week.  Obama has directed the Department of Labor to raise that threshold so that more become eligible for overtime.  Once again economists have a split opinion on the desirability of this policy.  A reasonable case can be made that this would have zero impact.  Employers could offset the increased overtime costs by slowing the growth of base pay and cutting employee benefits.  Those who lack the flexibility to cut pay and benefits will trim back on overtime hours and employment.  The federal government can set pay rules, but it cannot repeal the law of marginal cost equalling marginal revenue.

The Earned Income Tax Credit is another mechanism for helping low-wage workers, as Princeton economist Alan Blinder argues in this recent WSJ op-ed.  This policy receives nearly universal support from economists.  However it is not so popular in Washington because it forces the federal government to come up with the extra cash for low-wage workers instead of trying to stick employers with the bill.

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