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Don’t fear 15

With fast-food and retailer workers striking in 58 cities Thursday — a dramatic increase over the seven cities where similar actions took place last month — calling for a $15-an-hour wage, here’s an interesting historical note:

Fifty years ago, when Martin Luther King spoke at the March on Washington, one of the demands was a minimum wage increase from $1.15 to $2 an hour.  That would be just over $15 in today’s dollars.

In case we’re tempted to get carried away with this “dream,” the Chicago Tribune offers us University of Chicago economist Allen Sanderson’s advice: “Don’t fight for 15.”

All in all, it’s a pretty thorough demonstration of how far the dismal science can stray from any connection with reality.

First of all, he warns that if workers become too expensive, they risk being replaced by automation.  In fact, though, it’s really hard to imagine how much more automated McDonald’s could be.   Or to picture computerized checkouts at Macy’s.

He suggests higher wages would mean even higher unemployment rates for minority teens.  That might be a factor if there were a better job market for older people, but there isn’t — especially with an economy that is quickly replacing middle-class jobs with low-wage ones.

More than half of new jobs are in low-wage retail and hospitality sectors, according to the Chicago Political Economy Group.  And the number of college graduates earning minimum wage is steadily growing.

In fact the surge in youth unemployment came before the 2008 crash, while the economy was growing (not very fast), as federal funding for youth jobs was eliminated.  As we noted at the time, it was the first economic recovery in which youth unempoyment increased.  That was without a minimum wage hike, too.

Really poor?

Sanderson then looks into the “claim” that “one can’t live on $8.25 an hour and that someone working full-time would be in poverty.”  Not true at all, he says — a full-time minimum wage worker earns $16,500 a year, a generous $1,000 above the federal poverty level for a two-person household.

Of course, if the full-time worker had two kids rather than one, the family would be at about 20 percent below the poverty level.  Which is not exactly quibbling.

But the reality is that only about one-third of minimum wage workers have full-time jobs.  That’s one of the reasons fast-food workers want a union — so they can negotiate over things like scheduling.

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Will higher wages hurt the economy?

Higher wages for fast food and retail workers could hurt the economy, according to an analysis by the Chicago Tribune.

The analysis includes comments from the Workers Organizing Committee, which led hundreds of workers from national chains, from Wendy’s to Potbelly and from Sears to Victoria’s Secret, in strike actions here last week.  They’re not looking to double wages to $15 an hour overnight; they’re trying to organize a union and address a range of issues.

It also includes a Whole Foods employee who works two additional jobs and still qualifies for food stamps, and a labor economist who is quoted to the effect that high unemployment helps lower wages.

But its major thrust is whether consumers can stand to pay the higher prices that they say higher wages would require.  The economists they ask about this specialize in consumer psychology and marketing behavior.

One crucial piece of information is omitted, curiously:  how big of a price increase are we talking here?

In a column reviewing “the boilerplate argument against higher wages” — which is precisely that it would hurt consumers with “enormous” prices increases — David Sirota fills us in.

Raising the minimum wage to $10.50 would add 5 cents to the price of a Big Mac, according to one analysis.  Another study found that raising McDonalds workers’ hourly rate to $15 would drive the price of a Big Mac up by 22 cents.

Run that by your consumer psychologist.

A recent study by Action Now and Stand Up Chicago found that  raising Chicago retail and restaurant workers’ wages to $15 an hour would cost about $100 million for a sector with $14.2 billion in yearly revenues in the city.  That’s about 2.6 percent of revenue.

“Downtown employers can afford a very significant increase in wages,” they argue.

It’s an important reality check to vague scare talk about higher prices.  That line of arguent works because it involves a “populist insinuation that higher wages would hurt the Average Joe,” according to Sirota.

Here’s another hard economic fact that deserves more attention, courtesy of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability:  the largest, most profitable retailers in Illinois pay the lowest wages.

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