We're Talking About the Minimum Wage All Wrong

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As the Fight for $15 movement has escalated over the past few years, winning higher minimum wage laws across the country, the most common criticism on the right has been that such policies will lead to job loss. After San Francisco raised its minimum wage, people freaked out about lost jobs. After Seattle raised its minimum wage, people freaked out about lost jobs. And after New York City raised its minimum wage—you guessed it—people freaked out about lost jobs.


It’s not hard to see why these arguments gain traction. Losing a job is one of the most terrifying life experiences, especially for low-wage workers who rely on every single paycheck. In response, progressives are often reduced to a defensive crouch, pointing out that studies show there are only small or limited employment effects to increasing the minimum wage.

But the entire framing around lost jobs—which centers the conversation around what would be the worst-case scenario for workers, rather than the benefit that the large majority would get from higher wages—is part of the issue. In a new report out today, the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute argues that “minimum wage proposals are being evaluated as worthwhile only if researchers can prove that there will be no job loss and no negative costs of the policy for low-wage workers,” which is a standard that is “distinctly different than the conversations evaluating every other type of economic policy.”

According to EPI, even the typical image of “job loss”—in which a worker who was adversely affected would have no earnings for the year—is not entirely accurate. “The more likely scenario,” the report’s authors write, “is that what is lost are job hours, and that these lost hours are spread among the affected workers, who work a little less but earn more per year.”

None of this addresses the obvious fact that the quality of employment, in an era where Uber drivers are sleeping in their cars and Amazon warehouse workers are dying on the job, should be as important a goal as employment itself.

But even if minimum wage increases cost people their jobs—which surely would be the case for at least some amount of workers—focusing on that fact would still be missing the big picture. Losing your job doesn’t have to be a devastating life event. Instead of trying to minimize all job loss, those defending wage increases should also fight for a robust welfare state that includes things like generous unemployment insurance and decoupling benefits like healthcare from employment (a la Medicare for all).

It’s time to throw the job loss argument out the window and look at what’s best for workers overall. Doing otherwise would only concede to the fear-mongering of the right.

Clio Chang is a staff writer at Splinter.