The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

Minimum Wage—Maximum Lie: Memes are for Morons

It is is relatively easy to use “averages” in very dishonest ways, which is precisely what this meme does.

Consider a similar claim about a town with ten households where the “average household” earns $69,000 per year. That’s not bad but that doesn’t mean much. In fact, it may not even mean anyone in town earns that.

If one household earned $600,000 per year, the other nine would be earning only $10,000 per year. The average is highly deceptive.

Saying the average age of someone getting paid the minimum wage is 35 doesn’t mean very many 35-year-olds earn it—in fact, it could mean none do. So, what are the facts about minimum wages according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—please note these numbers are similar to those produced by the BLS during the Obama years as well.

In reality few workers actually earn the federal minimum wage. Approximately 128 million Americans are employed and of those 1.8 million earn minimum wage or less—that is about 1.4% of all employed workers, or just under one half of one percent of the population. Of those on hourly wages as opposed to salaried the BLS says it is makes up 2.3% of them.

According to the BLS,

Minimum wage workers tend to be young. Although workers under age 25 represented only about one-fifth of hourly paid workers, they made up about half of those paid the federal minimum wage or less. Among employed teenagers (ages 16 to 19) paid by the hour, about 8 percent earned the minimum wage or less, compared with about 1 percent of workers age 25 and older.

The typical minimum wage earner is not just young, but far less likely to have finished high school. Only 1% of college graduates earned at or below minimum wage while 4% of those who never graduated high school did. So chances of earning minimum wage, while still low, are highest if you never graduate high school, they drop in half—to 2%—for high school graduates and then drop in half again—to 1%—for college graduates.

Another factor is minimum wage earners are rarely married—but given most are teens this isn’t surprising. The typical minimum wage earner is not a middle-aged adult with a family to support. Never-married young workers are four times as likely to be minimum wage earners, while only 1% of married workers earn at this level. The other thing BLS notes is very few full-time workers earn minimum wages. The typical minimum wage earner is not just young and unmarried but a part-time worker as well. BLS found that 6% of part-time employees earn the minimum but only 1% of full-time workers do.

Another factor to consider is that most minimum wage workers are located in the states with the lowest cost of living. “The states with the highest percentages of hourly paid workers earning at or below the minimum wage were in the South: Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Virginia (all were about 4 percent).”

PBS, in 2015, noted the percentages of minimum-wage employees have steadily declined. “The percentage of hourly workers earning the federal minimum wage or less has decreased from 4.7 percent in 2012 and from 13.4 percent in 1979.” This means they made up 13.4% in 1979, 4.7% in 2012, 4.3% in 2015, and 2.3% in 2017.

Far Left groups constantly use the dishonest “average” calculations. Bernie Sanders talks about how minimum wages can’t sustain “working families.” Yet, very few minimum wage workers have families—most are unmarried, students and teenagers. The stereotype of a minimum wage earner being a student earning spending money exists for a reason—its largely true. In spite of the BLS monitoring the demographics of minimum wage earners special interest groups pushing for higher wages are very inventive when it comes to creating their own claims contradicting entirely all the BLS data.

So, how do we get an “average” minimum wage worker in age groups that are normally prime earning demographics? In addition to teens and college-age kids earning minimum a lot of retired seniors supplement their pensions and social security by finding part-time jobs. One 67-year-old working part-time with three 18-year-olds means the average age is 30—but not one worker is 30.

Beyond playing around with averages what is another way of reaching the claim that “average minimum wage earner is 35?” The Left-wing Economic Policy Institute simply adjusted the “minimum age” to one higher than it is in reality. Politifact noted, “ EPI’s study looked at workers who earned as much as four dollars an hour more than the federal minimum wage.” If you add $4 to the minimum the number of people in the earning group increases dramatically. For instance, make the minimum $25 and you could claim that almost 100% of hourly workers are “subsisting on minimum wages.” The problem with adding $4 to the minimum to enlarge the group, without most people knowing you’ve done so, is that it’s dishonest.

Politifact, after pointing out the deception, noted “the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 71 percent of minimum-wage workers are younger than 30 — a starkly different picture of low-wage workers” from the one portrayed by EPI.

One last caveat regards something related but not addressed here—comparison of minimum wages in the U.S. to other nations. Many of the claims made in comparison are bogus or leave out inconvenient facts. For instance, they are frequently NOT adjusted to reflect exchange rates or the higher cost of living in other countries. For instance, earning $20,000 in Swaziland is worth a lot more than earning $20,000 in Switzerland.

Another thing often left out is many other nations have varying minimum wages depending on the age of workers. Most minimum wage workers in the U.S. are youth, and these special interest groups compare their wage to those of adults ignoring the lower minimum wage for youth. For instance, a few years ago a writer at Huffington Post claimed the minimum wage in Australia was $14.50 at McDonalds. They assumed the adult wage applied to all workers and ignored the youth minimum where a 16-year-old would receive US$4.70 at that time after purchasing parity was taken into account.

Now, none of this addresses whether minimum wages should be higher or lower. That is not the point of this, our goal here is simply to show how some used figures to lie and why you should rarely give credence to memes.

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James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.