The real history of the minimum wage is an unsavory tale unknown to most current observers. The myth that it had honorable origins is widespread, with special currency among the progressive Left. Their uncritical support for a higher wage floor reflects a failure to grasp its pernicious economic effects on low-skilled labor and an ignorance of its historical context as a mechanism enabling racial discrimination. In fact, minimum wage legislation was often motivated by racist economic concerns, as Carrie Sheffield explained a year ago in this commentary in Forbes. She quotes, among others, the great Thomas Sowell, an African-American economist, from this opinion piece:
“In an earlier era, when racial discrimination was both legally and socially accepted, minimum-wage laws were often used openly to price minorities out of the job market.“
Sowell cites historical examples of minimum wage legislation intended to harm the employment prospects of Japanese, Chinese and blacks, including the following:
“Some supporters of the first federal minimum-wage law in the United States — the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931 — used exactly the same rationale, citing the fact that Southern construction companies, using non-union black workers, were able to come north and underbid construction companies using unionized white labor.
These supporters of minimum-wage laws understood long ago something that today’s supporters of such laws seem not to have bothered to think through. People whose wages are raised by law do not necessarily benefit, because they are often less likely to be hired at the imposed minimum-wage rate.“
Walter Williams, another well-known African-American economist, provides more evidence of these origins of the wage floor in “Mandated Wages and Discrimination“:
“During the legislative debate over the Davis-Bacon Act, which sets minimum wages on federally financed or assisted construction projects, racist intents were obvious. Rep. John Cochran, D-Mo., supported the bill, saying he had ‘received numerous complaints in recent months about Southern contractors employing low-paid colored mechanics getting work and bringing the employees from the South.’ Rep. Miles Allgood, D-Ala., complained: ‘That contractor has cheap colored labor that he transports, and he puts them in cabins, and it is labor of that sort that is in competition with white labor throughout the country.’ Rep. William Upshaw, D-Ga., spoke of the ‘superabundance or large aggregation of Negro labor.’ American Federation of Labor President William Green said, ‘Colored labor is being sought to demoralize wage rates.’ The Davis-Bacon Act, still on the books today, virtually eliminated blacks from federally financed construction projects when it was passed.“
An article by Thomas C. Leonard in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, “Eugenics and Economics in the Progressive Era“, reinforces the point:
“The progressive economists believed that the job loss induced by minimum wages was a social benefit as it performed the eugenic service ridding the labour force of the unemployable.”
And if that isn’t enough for you, David Henderson has this to say:
“Unions don’t support minimum wage increases because their own members are working at the minimum wage. Virtually all union employees–I’ve never heard of an exception–work at wages above the minimum. Northern unions and unionized firms, for example, have traditionally supported higher minimum wages to hobble their low-wage competition in the South…
… In a 1957 Senate hearing, minimum-wage advocate Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who just four years later would be President of the United States, stated,
‘Of course, having on the market a rather large source of cheap labor depresses wages outside of that group, too – the wages of the white worker who has to compete. And when an employer can substitute a colored worker at a lower wage – and there are, as you pointed out, these hundreds of thousands looking for decent work – it affects the whole wage structure of an area, doesn’t it?’“
One can claim that JFK was advocating for a higher wage floor to benefit all workers, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that “protecting” white workers was his priority. And it strains credulity to deny that JFK was aware of the other side of the coin: there would be negative repercussions for low-skilled black workers. What is painfully obvious about minimum wage legislation is that the real beneficiaries are generally not those competing for minimum wage jobs, but more entrenched labor interests.
It is an unfortunate reality that blacks make up a disproportionately large share of the unskilled labor force. According to another commentary by Walter Williams, unemployment among blacks was not a chronic problem in the first half of the 20th century, even among teens, and male labor force participation among blacks was higher than for whites. Over the past 50 years, however, black unemployment has averaged twice the rate for whites. Minimum wage legislation has encouraged this disparity.
Today’s advocates of a higher minimum wage are inadvertently rooting for a policy that compounds the disadvantages faced by the least skilled workers. The minimum wage contributes to a negative disparate impact on black labor market outcomes and prevents blacks from gaining valuable job experience. It is impossible to regulate wages without impinging on hiring decisions, and it is impossible to regulate both wages and hiring without impinging on the survival of employers. To help the unskilled, the best thing policymakers can do is allow them to trade their labor freely.