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Why Pay More?

An increase in the minimum wage will cause employers to hire the most qualified workers available, shutting out those with the lowest skills, say researchers.

If you give someone five dollars for a magazine that cost $3.98, how much change should you receive? And if someone was unable to count out that amount, would you want him manning the cash register?

What if he was unable to fill out a job application? Or couldn’t properly count store inventory? Would you consider hiring anyone like this?

This is one of the most serious— and unmentioned—issues facing retail employers looking to fill entry-level positions in today’s market. While activists and legislators abstractly discuss wage and price controls, business managers on the ground have to contend with practical matters of hiring and firing.

The question facing any employer is whether a prospective employee is worth the hire. Does the person in question possess the necessary skills and potential to contribute to the success of the business?

This question grows even more complicated for employers in the service and retail industries, which supply the majority of entry-level positions. These positions provide many people with their first jobs, offering them the opportunity to develop the skills and experience needed to advance in their career.

Entry-level positions like those offered in chain stores, restaurants and groceries often represent the only employment opportunity for those with limited education or who are high-school dropouts—at least initially. But to even get a foot in the door, basic skills such as reading, writing and simple arithmetic are crucial.

But more than half of all high-school dropouts are functionally illiterate, unable to read basic instructions or fill out an application. And more than 63% of those lacking a high-school diploma are functionally innumerate, which is to say they can’t make change if serving a patron or working a register.

Now, in response to the problem of helping low-skilled employees provide for themselves and their families, Congress is debating a 40% hike in the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour. But will it work?

Contrary to the opinion of proponents of minimum-wage hikes, a rising tide doesn’t necessarily lift all boats, and an extremely healthy skilled job market often masks an ailing low-skilled job market.

The increased costs associated with a wage hike saddles employers with a dilemma. Wage hikes frequently force employers to cut jobs and scale back hours in order to maintain profits— and thus stay in business. So who are they most likely to consider a liability: a part-time college or high-school student, or an illiterate employee who may in fact need the job more than anyone else?

A study by economists at the Federal Reserve found that every 10% increase in the minimum wage leads to a 2% to 3% decrease in employment overall. However, when you focus on the job loss suffered by low-skilled individuals such as high-school dropouts or minority teens, the increase in unemployment is as high as 8.5% for every 10% increase in the minimum wage, according to research from Cornell University and the University of Connecticut.

The making of public policy is a strange enterprise. Where else are means and ends so poorly harmonized? If a woman’s foot were broken, the response would not be to buy her a better brand of tennis shoe, but to see that she receives medical care.

If a man does not know how to drive, this does not mean that he needs a better car. It means he needs to take driver’s education classes.

So when confronted with the problem of functionally illiterate and unskilled employees seeking to enter the job market, why do we assume that raising the minimum wage is a solution?

© 2014