New Zealand increases minimum wage to $21.20 but will it have an impact?

From 1st April this year the minimum wage in New Zealand will increase from $20 to $21.20 as the Labour government stay true to their election pledge of commitment to supporting employees. Currently inflation at its highest level for 30 years at 5.9% and unemployment is at a record low of 3.2%. In theory the minimum wage increase should see consumers spending more of their income and thereby supporting businesses. However the living wage, the rate at which someone would need to afford the necessities of life and participate as an active citizen, increased to $22.75.

Theory behind the minimum wage
On the graph above a minimum wage of W1 means that the level of employment has fallen but those prepared to work but are involuntary unemployed has increased. However the people still employed are better off as they are paid more for the same work; their gain is exactly balanced by their employers’ loss. The jobs that someone would have been willing to do at less than the wage of We and for which some company would have been willing to pay more than We.

Does the theory of the minimum wage apply in reality?
In reality the theory of the minimum wage explained above is not as simple as it is made out to be. From records in the USA there is no obvious relationship between the minimum wage and unemployment: adjusted for inflation, the federal minimum wage was highest from 1967 through 1969, when the unemployment rate was below 4%. One study (whose authors won the Nobel Prize in Economics) in 1994 by David Card and Alan Krueger evaluated an increase in New Jersey’s minimum wage by comparing fast-food restaurants on both sides of the New Jersey – Pennsylvania border. They concluded, “contrary to the central prediction of the textbook model … we find no evidence that the rise in New Jersey’s minimum wage reduced employment at fast-food restaurants in the state.”

The idea that a higher minimum wage might not increase unemployment goes against the the theory in textbooks as if labour becomes more expensive firms will take on less employees. But there are several reason why this might not be the case:

  • The standard model states that firms will replace labour with machines if wages increase, but what happens if labour saving technologies are not available at a reasonable cost.
  • Some employers may not be able to maintain their business with fewer workers especially in service based industries. Therefore, some companies can’t lay off employees if the minimum wage is increased.
  • Small firms are traditionally labour intensive and can’t afford large capital investment. Therefore the minimum wage doesn’t have the impact of laying off workers.
  • If employers have significant market power that the theory of the supply and demand for labour doesn’t exist, then they can reduce the wage level by hiring fewer workers (only those willing to work for low pay), just as a monopolist can boost prices by cutting production (think of an oil cartel, for example). A minimum wage forces them to pay more, which eliminates the incentive to minimize their workforce.
  • Even though a higher minimum wage will raise labour costs many companies can recoup cost increases in the form of higher prices; because most of their customers are not poor, the net effect is to transfer money from higher-income to lower-income families. In addition, companies that pay more often benefit from higher employee productivity, offsetting the growth in labor costs.
  • Higher wages boost productivity as they motivate people to work harder, they attract higher-skilled workers, and they reduce employee turnover, lowering hiring and training costs, among other things. If fewer people quit their jobs, that also reduces the number of people who are out of work at any one time because they’re looking for something better. A higher minimum wage motivates more people to enter the labor force, raising both employment and output.
  • Higher pay increases workers’ buying power. Because poor people spend a relatively large proportion of their income, a higher minimum wage can boost overall economic activity and stimulate economic growth, creating more jobs.

All the above add a range of variables that are not considered in the simple supply and demand model for labour. It maybe useful as a starting point in discussing the minimum wage but has its limitations in the more complex real world.

Source: Economism by James Kwak

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