Does a higher minimum wage mean higher unemployment?

In most economics textbooks the labour market is shown with a simple graph of the supply of labour and the demand for labour and where they intersect the wage that employees receive for their service and the amount employed. The theory is based on the following:

Demand for Labour
In this context the demand for labour is determined by the marginal revenue product where workers are paid the value of their marginal revenue product to the firm. The demand for labour is downward sloping as when there is a fall in the wage rate the firm will expand employment as the labour input has become relatively cheaper for a given level of productivity, compared to other inputs. A rise in the wage rate will causes a contraction of labour demand.

Supply of Labour
Economic theory would suggest that the real wage (adjusted for inflation) is a key determinant of the number of hours. Therefore the supply curve for labour slopes upward because people want to work more hours if you pay them more, at least in theory. An increase in the real wage on offer in a job should lead to someone supplying more hours of work over a given period of time, although there is the possibility that further increases in the going wage rate might have little effect on an individual’s labour supply.

The Minimum Wage

The minimum wage distorts the market equilibrium as there is now a wage floor – a level which the wage cannot fall below. If the minimum wage is below the equilibrium wage then there is no impact as the market will ensure that is reaches equilibrium. However a minimum wage above the equilibrium means that companies will hire fewer workers and therefore result in more unemployment. On the graph below a minimum wage of W1 means that the level of employment has fallen but those prepared to work but are involuntary unemployed has increased. However the people still employed are better off as they are paid more for the same work; their gain is exactly balanced by their employers’ loss. The jobs that someone would have been willing to do at less than the wage of We and for which some company would have been willing to pay more than We. Those jobs are now gone, as well as the goods and services they would have produced.

Real Impact of the Minimum Wage.

In reality the theory of the minimum wage explained above is not as simple as it is made out to be. From records in the USA there is no obvious relationship between the minimum wage and unemployment: adjusted for inflation, the federal minimum wage was highest from 1967 through 1969, when the unemployment rate was below 4%. One study in 1994 by David Card and Alan Krueger evaluated an increase in New Jersey’s minimum wage by comparing fast-food restaurants on both sides of the New Jersey – Pennsylvania border. They concluded, “contrary to the central prediction of the textbook model … we find no evidence that the rise in New Jersey’s minimum wage reduced employment at fast-food restaurants in the state.”

The idea that a higher minimum wage might not increase unemployment goes against the the theory in textbooks as if labour becomes more expensive firms will take on less employees. But there are several reason why this might not be the case:

  • The standard model states that firms will replace labour with machines if wages increase, but what happens if labour saving technologies are not available at a reasonable cost.
  • Some employers may not be able to maintain their business with fewer workers especially in service based industries. Therefore, some companies can’t lay off employees if the minimum wage is increased.
  • Small firms are traditionally labour intensive and can’t afford large capital investment. Therefore the minimum wage doesn’t have the impact of laying off workers.
  • If employers have significant market power that the theory of the supply and demand for labour doesn’t exist, then they can reduce the wage level by hiring fewer workers (only those willing to work for low pay), just as a monopolist can boost prices by cutting production (think of an oil cartel, for example, see graph Monopsony Labour Market). A minimum wage forces them to pay more, which eliminates the incentive to minimize their workforce.
  • Even though a higher minimum wage will raise labour costs many companies can recoup cost increases in the form of higher prices; because most of their customers are not poor, the net effect is to transfer money from higher-income to lower-income families. In addition, companies that pay more often benefit from higher employee productivity, offsetting the growth in labor costs.
  • Higher wages boost productivity as they motivate people to work harder, they attract higher-skilled workers, and they reduce employee turnover, lowering hiring and training costs, among other things. If fewer people quit their jobs, that also reduces the number of people who are out of work at any one time because they’re looking for something better. A higher minimum wage motivates more people to enter the labor force, raising both employment and output.
  • Higher pay increases workers’ buying power. Because poor people spend a relatively large proportion of their income, a higher minimum wage can boost overall economic activity and stimulate economic growth, creating more jobs.
Monopsony Labour Market

All the above add a range of variables that are not considered in the simple supply and demand model for labour. It maybe useful as a starting point in discussing the minimum wage but has its limitations in the more complex real world

Source: Economism by James Kwak

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