This holds true for U.S. senators.
At the moment, there’s a debate in Congress about increasing the minimum wage nationally to $15 an hour. A lot of arguments are being presented for and against the idea, often ones that point to academic research or employer testimony. But then there is that rhetoric that derives from the experiences of some of the most elite people in the world.
Take Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). He tweeted his rationale for opposing such an increase.
Okay, sure. But Thune was born in 1961, meaning he turned 18 in 1979. The national minimum wage at that point was $2.90, which, if adjusted to 2021 dollars using the consumer price index, is more than $11. That $6 an hour, once adjusted, is far more than the $15 being considered. Because, you know, inflation.
Look, this isn’t about the fact that places with lower costs will be affected by a national minimum-wage increase differently from a region with higher costs. This is about Thune appealing to his own experience of having earned $6 an hour as though that shows that the same wage should be sufficient now, when in reality it’s the equivalent of nearly $23 in 2021 dollars.
He wasn’t alone. Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) made a by-now-familiar claim about how he managed to graduate from college without debt because he had a part-time minimum-wage job. But Marshall graduated from Kansas State University in 1984, when the average tuition at a four-year public university nationally was about $1,150, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The minimum wage at the time was $3.35, meaning that tuition could be paid with 343 hours of minimum-wage work.
In 2017, the average tuition for such a school was $8,804, requiring 1,214 hours of minimum-wage work — more than three times as long. And that’s just tuition.
Expecting more arguments in this vein, we made a tool that allows you to see how costs overall and for a college education have changed since each U.S. senator either turned 18 or graduated. (Cost conversions use CPI data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.) As you use it, notice how costs compare to both the current national $7.25 minimum wage and the $15 proposal.
(You probably noticed that an American gets more spending power on apparel now than he or she did decades ago. It’s one of the select areas in which relative costs have dropped, thanks in no small part to globalization.)
Again, the point of this interactive is not that the $15-an-hour proposal is therefore necessarily the best move for the Senate to make. The point, instead, is that relying on a 40-year-old understanding of the buying power of the minimum wage is a good way to demonstrate a remarkably limited grasp of the American economy.