Nick Gillespie makes a good case for what should be obvious to any thinking person: to help the poor, direct transfers are a better alternative than raising the minimum wage. Most people would probably agree, regardless of their views of the appropriate role of government in society, that governments are better-suited to writing checks than to complex market interventions, and labor markets are no exception. State or federal wage floors, minimum wages, or “living wages” — whatever politically expedient name happens to be in vogue, they are the same thing — diminish employment opportunities for the least skilled members of the labor force. These workers have the most to gain from employment experience. Hence, their losses extend beyond a mere loss of current income into lost opportunities to build human capital and future income.
Mark Perry puts a fine point on the folly of raising the wage floor: “Instead of $10.10 per hour, think of the proposed minimum wage as a $5,700 annual tax per full-time unskilled worker.”
Transfers can be targeted at the poor more effectively than a living wage. First, it is relatively easy to qualify households falling below poverty-level. Second, a significant share of low-wage earners are not members of low-income households. Third, as noted above, employers can respond to wage mandates by reducing employment, but also by cutting the hours of their low-skilled employees. Both actions tend to nullify an otherwise positive impact of a higher wage floor on income.
There are few who question the need for a safety net for those truly in need, but policy should be designed to limit the need for public support. Wage floors do not promote either of those goals. However, I’d also caution that some of the transfer programs mentioned by Gillespie (food stamps and housing subsidies) are, in fact, market interventions that have unintended consequences of their own, including price distortions. Cash transfers avoid these kinds of difficulties if they are crafted to minimize negative incentives on work effort and job search activity.