A few weeks ago, researchers from the University of Washington released a new study showing that Seattle’s efforts to improve the economic prospects of its working-class citizens had backfired. Seattle is one of a growing number of American cities to gradually raise the minimum wage to $15 in recent years. But despite earlier research that indicated the increases have had a minimal effect on the labor market, the UW study found that the policy hurts the very workers it’s designed to help.
The main reasons why: As more workers start making $15 an hour — up in Washington state from $9.47 from before the legislation was passed — employers are hiring less, downsizing more and/or decreasing worker hours in light of the increased labor costs, the study finds. All in all, under a $15 dollar an hour minimum wage, the average low-wage worker lost $125 per month individually and $100 million in earnings collectively.
But rather than lamenting the news, conservative media outlets such as Breitbart, a site that prides itself on being a champion for the beleaguered working class, responded to it with glee. Breitbart has vehemently opposed the $15 minimum wage movement for years. “Wow, unintended consequences of progressive policies rear their ugly head again. You could have knocked me over with a feather,” reads the top comment on a Breitbart story about the UW study.
For decades, conservatives opposed raising the minimum wage and other labor-friendly policies on the grounds that they were an affront to American capitalism and its laissez-faire ideals. But a new wave of opposition has emerged of late, this one from working-class, fiscal conservatives who would (in theory) benefit from a minimum-wage increase. Raising the minimum wage will incentivize companies to outsource, automate or downsize labor, they say, and an $8 an hour job is better than none at all.
“The company I work for already knows how to automate its factories and production lines. The only thing that’s kept them [from doing so] is the capital investment required,” says Juan, a 30-year-old finance professional living in Toronto who frequently contributes to the private Facebook group Liberals & Conservatives. (He asked that we not use his real name so as to protect his current employer.)
Juan grew up as a first-generation immigrant from a “third-world” Latin American country and worked low-wage service and retail jobs until he was 24 years old. But Juan now opposes a $15 minimum wage despite his background, primarily because it will accelerate the push toward automation he cites above. “With the recent move to a $15 minimum wage, I can tell you that these [automation] projects will be put through, and a whole lot of temps will be out of work next year,” he says.
And while he’s right that automation is inevitable , it’s not necessarily the immediate concern of those who oppose a $15 minimum wage. Mainly because the change will likely occur over the course of decades. Instead, these opponents are worried that a $15 minimum wage will make the labor market inaccessible to young, unskilled workers looking to gain vital work experience.
At least, that’s what scares Sean Morrissey. A U.S. Army vet who identifies as lower-middle class — “only Walmart and Aldi for us” — Morrissey says he never would’ve been able to start his career had it not been for a $7.25 minimum wage. “Some of the jobs I’ve worked weren’t worth $15 an hour. If you make $15 as the mandate, I’d have been unemployed,” he says. “I’m glad it was $7.25. I was able to get my foot in the door, work for experience and eventually get a better-paying job.”
Joe Simpson, 28, has a similar tale. Simpson lives in Baldwin, Wisconsin, with his wife and their daughter, and earns more than $60,000 as an account manager at UPS, where he’s worked for the past 10 years. But he says he wouldn’t have been able to have the life he has now had UPS not hired him at $8.25 an hour when he was an 18-year-old college student, and given him the opportunity to move up within the company. “Raising the minimum wage would have a negative impact on young workers, unskilled workers and small businesses,” Simpson says. “Families in poor neighborhoods and less access to education will have a harder time finding a job than they do now.”
It’s tempting to dismiss these arguments as talking points, especially when they neatly adhere to the “bootstraps” narrative that conservatives use to argue against regulation and public programs. But economists are just as split on the efficacy of a $15 minimum wage as liberals and conservatives, and the UW study gives the anti-$15 argument some tangible merit. If nothing else, it suggests that while a more modest minimum-wage increase might not affect employment as much, the costs of a $15 minimum wage are simply too high.
And where does that leave guys like Juan, Morrissey and Simpson, all of whom started low and learned on the job?
Unemployed, at least by their calculation.