Nine years, five months and one day as of Christmas: That’s how long it’s been since the federal minimum wage was raised. If we make it to June without a wage hike — a safe bet, given the fractious state of federal policymaking — we’ll officially be in the longest stretch of time without a minimum-wage increase since the policy was first established in 1938.
This is a problem for workers at the low end of the wage scale, because inflation — the tendency of the price of just about everything to rise over time — steadily gnaws away at the value of the minimum wage as time passes. The federal minimum was last increased in July 2009, when it was set to $7.25 an hour. It remains nominally at that level today, but in real terms inflation has chipped more than a dollar away from its value: $7.25 in 2009 works out to about $6.19 today. In the past year alone, the minimum wage has lost 14 cents of value, relative to 2009.
While that’s bad news for low-end workers, it’s good news for the companies that employ them: an hour of minimum wage labor now costs less, relative to the price of everything else, than it did back in 2009. Employers get to decide what to do with that $1.06 in savings. They could pass it on to consumers, for instance, or they could simply pocket it as profit for themselves and their shareholders. Given that corporate profits are near record levels, it’s safe to assume there’s a considerable amount of the latter going on.
Zooming out, all the way back to the inception of the federal minimum wage in 1938, we can see that there’s been a steady decline in the inflation-adjusted value of the wage going back to about 1968, when it peaked at about $11.39 in 2018 dollars.
Since then, federal policymakers have slowed the pace of minimum wage increases relative to inflation. But that’s not because voters are demanding a stingy minimum: They’ve been clamoring for higher minimum wages for quite some time, but policymakers aren’t responding to public demand. In some cases, in fact, lawmakers are deliberately working to thwart the will of the public when it comes to the minimum wage by doing things such as slow-walking voter-initiated minimum wage hikes (Michigan) or simply overturning them completely (D.C.).
Recent research shows that the reason politicians — Democrats and Republicans alike — are dragging their feet on popular policies such as the minimum wage is that they pay a lot more attention to the needs and desires of deep-pocketed business groups than they do to regular voters. Those groups tend to oppose minimum wage increases for the simple reason that they eat into their profit margins. (Reminder: Corporate profits are near record levels).
Corporate pushback aside, the latest research on the minimum wage shows that there’s little reason for policymakers to fear raising it. The best available data suggests that minimum wage hikes increase pay for workers at the bottom of the income spectrum but otherwise have little effect on overall employment.
Beyond mere dollars and cents, the minimum wage stands as a baseline for the amount of value a society places on an hour’s worth of human labor. A strong minimum wage sends a signal that there is dignity in labor, even for the jobs that require the least amount of skill. It indicates that society values its workers and the contributions they make to the economy.
A weak minimum wage, on the other hand, says the opposite: that human labor is cheap, that workers are expendable and that the dignity of work is for sale to the lowest bidder.