How Much Would DC Minimum Wage Workers Gain From $15 an Hour?

March 7, 2016

The Economic Policy Institute has answered a question long on my mind: How much are minimum wage increases actually worth when they’re phased in over time? The answer, as one would guess, is not as much as they seem because inflation erodes purchasing power.

EPI does more than confirm the hunch, however. It reports actual dollar values, using three different inflation estimates for minimum wage increases that will be on state ballots in November — and one that might be on the District of Columbia ballot.

Set aside the if and the why. Here’s what we learn about how much minimum wage workers would actually gain if voters had a chance to decide. How that if would pan out seems fairly certain.

As with one of the California proposals, they’d get a relatively big bump the first year — $2.00 more it would seem, if measured from the current rate. Inflation would take a bit of a bite, however, leaving them with somewhere between 23 cents and 47 cents less, depending on which estimate we look at.

Annual increases then get smaller, and inflation chugs on. So by 2020, the apparent $15.00 is worth somewhere between $13.76 and $13.41 in today’s dollars. In other words, what looks like an increase of nearly 43% for the District’s minimum wage workers could actually be about 15% less.

This isn’t to say that the campaign should be fighting for a significantly higher minimum wage. Nor that voters, if they can, should decide that the proposed new minimum wouldn’t make a enough of a difference to risk the job losses, cutbacks in hours, etc. that the Chamber of Commerce and its business association allies warn of.

For one thing, they always sound off when minimum wage increases are in the offing. And the alarms have thus far proved so much hot air — or mostly that.

We can’t altogether discount job losses and the like because, as economist Jared Bernstein has said, “the research doesn’t have a lot to say” about such a large minimum wage increase.

Harry Holzer, another leading labor economist, leans toward caution, but also concludes that the research on past minimum wage increases doesn’t supply grounds for a clear, reliable prediction.

We’re on surer ground when we look at the known knowns. For example, if the District’s minimum wage were $15 today, a full-time, year round worker earning that would have virtually no money left after paying the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment.

If the worker were a single mother with two children, she’d be short about $6,000 a month for basic needs, plus taxes, according to EPI’s family budget calculator. On the other hand, she’s short $800 a month more at the current minimum wage rate.

The minimum wage is one, though hardly the only reason that income inequality in the District is greater than in any state — and almost every large city, as the DC Fiscal Policy Institute recently reported.

Households in the top fifth of the income scale have, on average, 30 times the income of those in the bottom fifth, though they’ve lost a negligible amount since the Great Recession set in. Households in the middle fifths have more in real dollars now.

But those in the bottom fifth have nearly 14% less — a mere $9,300, on average. This is far less than what a full-time, minimum wage worker gets paid, clearly indicating the need for a broader range of remedies than the proposed increase.

For one thing, converting the hourly wage to full-time, year round probably overstates a family’s income because so many retail employers schedule workers only when customer traffic indicates they need them.

Looked at from these several perspectives, the $15 an hour minimum wage seems a modest proposal — a necessary, but not sufficient measure to reduce income inequality by lifting what the bottom fifth has to live on.

DCFPI, which has favored the increase in the past, has some other recommendations, including what I infer are limits on the just-in-time scheduling practices that a bill the DC Council is considering would set.

The District would still need a strong safety net — and not only for residents whose incomes now drag down the average for the bottom fifth. Some low-wage workers might lose their jobs if employers had to pay them $15 an hour — even if they regularly receive tips and can thus legally be paid as little as $2.77 now.

We simply don’t know, but we shouldn’t pretend there’s no risk. Nor should we assume that workers active in the Fight for $15 campaign and its allies do.

As Bernstein argued awhile ago, they may have weighed the potential costs and benefits and decided they’d “be more likely to come out ahead” with the large increase they’re demanding. The District as a whole, including its yawping restaurant owners would too.