Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Do minimum wages translate into higher prices?

When the minimum wage increases, something has to give.  Companies have the option of cutting work hours, passing on the wage increase to customers, receiving smaller margins, or some combination of the above.

Most minimum wage research has focused on employment and hours worked.  Stanford economist Tom MaCurdy has a forthcoming study that represents the first careful look at prices.  MaCurdy finds that when the minimum wage was increased 21% in 1996, it induced a 2% increase in the price of food consumed away from home.  The prices of retail services, groceries and household personal services also went up.  Combining all of these effects, MaCurdy found that the overall price increase was greater for families in the bottom 20% of the distribution than for those in the top 20%.

What does this mean for low-income families?  MaCurdy shows that minimum wage earners are distributed evenly throughout the income distribution; one in five households has a member receiving the minimum wage.  In low income households minimum wage recipients are more likely to be primary earners, whereas they tend to be secondary earners (think teenagers) in high income households.  So if low income households receive the same boost in earnings but pay higher prices, they actually end up worse off.  MaCurdy concludes:
... more poor families were losers than winners from the 1996 hike in the minimum wage. Nearly one in five low-income families benefited, but all low-income families paid for the increase through higher prices.

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