The Clear Benefits of a Higher Wage

From the New York Times Editorial Board:

Republicans sputtered with outrage when the Congressional Budget Office said that immigration reform would lower the deficit, strengthen Social Security and speed up economic growth. They called for the office to be abolished when it dared to point out that tax cuts raise the deficit or when it highlighted the benefits of health care reform. But now that the budget office has predicted (and exaggerated) the possibility that an increase in the minimum wage might result in a loss of jobs, Republicans think it’s gospel.

“This report confirms what we’ve long known,” said a spokesman for the House speaker, John Boehner. “While helping some, mandating higher wages has real costs, including fewer people working.”

What Republicans fail to mention is that Tuesday’s report from the budget office, a federal nonpartisan agency, was almost entirely positive about the benefits of raising the minimum wage to $10.10 by 2016, as President Obama and Congressional Democrats have proposed.

But the report said there could be a cost to the wage increase, and most of the headlines have focused on the possible loss of 500,000 jobs, or about 0.3 percent of total employment. That bears further scrutiny, because, unlike the benefits, the employment estimates have been disputed by a wide variety of nonpartisan economic studies.

What the report actually says is that there is a two-thirds chance that a $10.10 wage would produce job losses in a range from just above zero to one million. The number 500,000 was simply picked as a midpoint. (There is a one-third chance the wage increase would lead to more than a million job losses or actually increase employment.) A range that big is essentially the budget office’s way of saying it doesn’t really know what would happen to employment if the wage goes up, because, as the report says, there is vast uncertainty about how much wages will go up on their own over the next three years, and uncertainty about how employers would react to a higher minimum.

The budget office didn’t do its own research on those variables. It surveyed the economic literature on the subject, and chose a figure more conservative than the most recent and rigorous studies have found. That means the job-loss figure needs to regarded skeptically, as a careful reading of the report shows, while the benefits are undisputed.

Those benefits to millions of low-wage workers overwhelmingly outweigh the questionable possibility of job losses. Lawmakers who focus only on the potential downside of an enormously beneficial policy change are the same ones who never wanted to do it in the first place.