The American Minimum Wage Would Be $26 an Hour Today If Wages Tracked Productivity (As They Once Did in the 20th Century)

Among the most ridiculous things in America is how wages for most workers have been mostly stagnant for 40 years.

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That may sound pretty crazy, but that’s roughly what the minimum wage would be today if it had kept pace with productivity growth since its value peaked in 1968. And, having the minimum wage track productivity growth is not a crazy idea. The national minimum wage did in fact keep pace with productivity growth for the first 30 years after a national minimum wage first came into existence in 1938.

Furthermore, a minimum wage that grew in step with the rapid rises in productivity in these decades did not lead to mass unemployment. The year-round average for the unemployment rate in 1968 was 3.6 percent, a lower average than for any year in the last half century.

The $26 an Hour World

Think of what the country would look like if the lowest paying jobs, think of dishwashers or custodians, paid $26 an hour. That would mean someone who worked a 2000 hour year would have an annual income of $52,000. This income would put a single mother with two kids at well over twice the poverty level.

And, this is just for starting wages. Presumably workers would see their pay increase above the minimum as they stayed at their job for a number of years and ideally were promoted to better paying positions. If we assume that after 10 or 15 years their pay had risen by 20 percent, then these workers at the bottom of the pay ladder would be getting more than $60,000 a year.

While that is hardly a luxurious standard of living, it is certainly enough to support a middle-class lifestyle. For a two-earner couple this would be $120,000 a year. Imagine this is what people at the very bottom of the labor force could reasonably expect when they are in their thirties and forties.

Don’t Try This at Home

The $26 an hour is useful as a thought experiment for envisioning what the world might look like today, but it would not be realistic as policy for local, state, or even national minimum wage without many other changes to the economy. A minimum wage this high would almost certainly lead to large-scale unemployment, and that would be true even if it were phased in over five or six years.

The problem is that we have made many changes to the economy that shifted huge amounts of income upward, so that we cannot support a pay structure that gives workers at the bottom $52,000 a year. This is the whole point of my book, Rigged [it’s free], we have restructured the economy in ways that ensure a disproportionate share of income goes to those at the top. If the bottom half or 80 percent of the workforce got the same share they got 50 years ago, we would have an enormous problem with inflation.  

Just to quickly run through the short list, we can start with my favorites, government-granted patent and copyright monopolies. Items like drugs, medical equipment, and computer software, which would all be relatively cheap in a free market, instead cost us huge amounts of money because of these monopolies. In the case of prescription drugs alone, patent monopolies and related protections may add more than $400 billion a year (roughly $3,000 per family) to our annual bill. In total, the cost from these protections can easily exceed $1 trillion a year (almost $8,000 per family).

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Not only did the federal minimum wage not keep pace with productivity growth, it did not even keep pace with inflation. A person working at the minimum wage today is getting substantial lower pay than a worker did 53 years ago in 1968.

It would be a great story if we could reestablish the link between the minimum wage and productivity and make up the ground lost over the last half century. But we have to make many other changes in the economy to make this possible. These changes are well worth making.