Who is working for the minimum wage?

Who are the minimum wage workers? In today’s press conference, proponents concentrated on the number of adults working for the minimum wage, carefully distinguishing them from teenagers.Adults were considered to be people age 20 and older. Where you draw that line is important. For health care reform, of course, you can stay on your parents’ health insurance until age 26. And many college students, full- and part-time, are in their early 20s or older. The age of independence varies considerably, as many in their late teens are supporting themselves, often with families, and doing heroic work in the military. 

Definitions of adulthood, independence and responsibility aside, it’s nonetheless clear that a better benchmark for gaining an understanding of the minimum age population may be the one used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Here’s a link to the report we cited in our study of SeaTac Proposition 1

… the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports minimum wage workers nationally are disproportionately young. Workers below age 25 represent 20 percent of the workforce and about half of minimum wage recipients. They also tend to be less educated. About 10 percent of workers without a high school degree earn the minimum wage. That falls to 4 percent with a high school diploma and 2 percent with a college degree. The hospitality industry employs about half of all minimum wage workers. But, as BLS notes, “for many of these workers, tips and commissions supplement the hourly wages received.”

Another characteristic of the low-wage workers that requires more study is education. Seattle Times business columnit Jon Talton has a short blog post on this subject. 

In 1968, about 37 percent of the total workforce had not completed high-school or received a GED. It 2012, this number had dropped to 9 percent. And yet the national minimum wage is 23 percent lower than its 1968 peak value when adjusted for inflation. So the axiom that better education translates into higher wages isn’t necessarily so.

That’s a non sequitor. Those numbers don’t prove his point. The level of the national minimum wage has nothing to do with the wages paid productive workers. As noted above, very few workers with high school and college degrees are paid the federal minimum. And “better education” has a lot to do with subject matter skills, knowledge that contributes to increased productivity.  The barista with a degree in English lit is unlikely to be much more productive than a high school graduate with a passion for coffee and customer service.

We’ll be looking at the characteristics of minimum wage workers in Washington in more detail in the coming weeks.