The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In every state, the minimum wage is lower than what residents want, study says

Students and others protest on the University of Washington campus in Seattle on April 1, 2015, in support of raising the minimum wage for campus workers to $15 an hour. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

The United States has one of the lowest minimum wages of the world’s wealthy nations. It may come as no surprise, then, that minimum wage increases are popular with voters: An August 2016 Pew Research Center survey, for instance, found that 58 percent of Americans supported doubling the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $15, with 41 percent opposed.

But Republicans in Congress have shown little interest in increasing the minimum wage in recent years. As a result, most minimum wage action now happens at the state level: In 2018 alone, minimum wage increases went into effect in at least 18 states.

But even at the state level, politicians aren’t particularly responsive to what voters want as the minimum wage. That’s been underscored in research published this month in the American Journal of Political Science and showing that in every state in the union, the minimum wage is well below what that state’s residents say they prefer.

“On average, state minimum wages are set at a level approximately two dollars per hour lower than the wage state residents would prefer,” the researchers found.

Arriving at this conclusion was fairly straightforward: In a nationally representative survey, the researchers told state residents what their state’s minimum wage was and followed up with an open-ended question about what respondents thought the minimum wage should be.

The researchers characterize the resulting gap as a policy bias: the difference between what voters prefer and what legislators enact. In all 50 states, this bias runs in the same direction: toward policy that is more conservative than the public’s desire. This finding reinforces the results of a number of other studies published this year, which show that lawmakers — Democratic and Republican alike — govern more conservatively than their constituents desire.

A chief reason for this disconnection: Research shows that state and federal lawmakers think the public is more conservative than it actually is. In part, that is because of the influence of corporate lobbyists and donors, who tend to be more conservative than the general population and have much more access to lawmakers than the average citizen has. A study published this summer, for instance, found that congressional staffers thought that correspondence from business interests was more representative of public opinion than letters from average constituents.

The new minimum wage study also found that the gap between voter preferences and actual minimum wage policy was smaller in states that allow citizens to put legislation on the ballot. “The magnitude of the conservative bias is $0.90 less in states with access to direct democracy, compared to a baseline of $2.56 in the rest of the states,” the study found.

If you give voters the tools to raise the minimum wage themselves, in other words, they’ll gladly do it.

The concern with direct legislation via ballot measure is that voters are not experts and may enact policies that end up being suboptimal or even harmful in the long run. Of course, the average lawmaker isn’t an expert either, and there’s no shortage of examples of politicians enacting laws that are eventually repealed or overturned once their full consequences became apparent.

In the case of the minimum wage, at least, the latest research suggests that increases, particularly incremental ones, benefit the people they’re intended to benefit while causing little collateral harm. That should be encouraging news for voters looking to change minimum wage laws in their states.