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“Minimum-Wage Increases; The Justice Of Redistribution”: To Not Be Victims, Workers Must Be Compensated For Value Of Their Work

As we enter the new year, 3 million low-wage workers in 21 states will gain a small increase in their wages, thanks to increases in state minimum wages. People you know will see a wage increase — your neighbor, your teenage kid, the person who serves you coffee and donuts.

The minimum-wage increase is a good thing because it increases income in a small way to the workers on the low rungs of our economy. A stagnant minimum wage redistributes income from workers to owners and managers and, ultimately, shareholders and customers. As the minimum wage has failed to keep up with inflation and productivity increases, our political economy has redistributed significant income from low-wage workers to owners over the past 40 years. One reason this happened is that workers have no leverage vis-à-vis corporations. They are price takers for their labor.

Minimum-wage increases reverse this redistribution so that workers win back a little bit of what they have lost. Minimum wages should be associated with value added instead of the powerlessness of workers to demand higher wages. But minimum-wage workers are not compensated for the value of their work for their employers. Raising the wage begins to remedy that undercompensation. If the wage goes too high, then employers will not hire workers, because their compensation exceeds the value of their work. But as we have seen, this is not the case with minimum-wage increases, which simply means that for the past decades workers have been paid less than the value of their work for employers.

How does increasing the minimum wage redistribute income? An increase in the wage results in a decrease in the payments to managers and profits for the establishment. That’s redistribution. We can argue that this might not happen because of productivity increases by the worker, but that merely means that the productivity increases (or a portion thereof) that might have gone to the employer instead go to the employee — hence redistribution from owners to workers. Redistribution also can occur between worker and customer. If a restaurant increases prices due to an increase in the minimum wage, in an attempt to avoid a decrease in profits, then the customers pay more. These customers have the disposable income to patronize restaurants. We can make the assumption that the customers have greater incomes than the people who wait on them. Thus, an increase is again redistributive, with the increase coming from increased prices paid by customers. Imagine: In Seattle an Amazon IT person goes out to lunch. (It feels like they all do.) Instead of paying $15 at the Skillet truck, they pay $17. They have lost $2, and the Skillet truck workers will have seen an increase in their wages. Redistribution to minimum-wage workers is good for them and pushes up the floor for the bottom half of all wages.

We too often equate increasing the minimum wage with living standards and poverty levels. This is dangerous for several reasons, including the fact that it sets a precedent for slicing and dicing the minimum wage: Do you have dependents? Do you pay for your own health insurance? How old are you? Are you paying for tuition yourself? All these are important questions, but taken to their logical conclusion, they move the minimum wage into welfare policy, so that an 18-year-old student could get paid less than a 25-year-old who is on her parents’ health insurance, and she might get paid less than a single mom with one kid, who could get paid less than a spouse in a household with three kids, etc. These are life situations best handled by social policy, social insurance and the appropriate provisions of public goods and services. But a focus on the minimum wage as welfare policy debases the fact that we should be raising the minimum wage because we should be insuring that workers are paid the value of their work. That is, such a focus disrespects workers as workers.

A lot of liberals don’t want to call increases in the minimum wage “redistributive.” It brings the reality of class conflict too close to the surface, apparently, and portrays workers as workers, not as victims. But in order for workers to not be victims, they must be compensated for the value of their work. That is not happening now, not in these United States. These state minimum-wage increases begin to reverse the damage, precisely because they are redistributive, from the owners of capital to the workers they employ. That is a good thing — and an excellent beginning for the new year!


By: John R. Burbank, Executive Director, Economic Opportunity Institute; The Blog, The Huffington Post, December 31, 2014

January 3, 2015 - Posted by | Economic Inequality, Minimum Wage, Workers | , , , , ,


  1. I’m all for minimum wage increases, that’s a given. However, I watched Chris Hayes’ show on MSNBC, where he had McDonalds’ employees demanding a $15 minimum wage. That’s fine, as long as the increases would be for ALL workers, across the board, and the increase should be equal to the increase in minimum wage. For example, my sister is a microbiologist but gets a salary of only $ 17 / hour. She feels that she should also get an increase of $7, from $17 to $24… otherwise, her salry would be almost equal to the guy who flips hamburgers or to that guy who collects carts at a WalMart parking lot. It sounds elitist, I know, but I think it is just fair.


    Comment by renxkyoko | January 3, 2015 | Reply

    • It is absolutely fair for your sister to get a salary increase, too – and because prices would have to go up to accommodate the increase in minimum wage, her real salary would actually drop to something like $15 today. Besides, $17/hour for a microbiologist is way underpaid. Theoretically, there would be some pressure to increase your sister salary as well but i’m not sure if that would happen in real life. Or it will, just not quickly.
      However, if that doesn’t happen, I don’t think that the feeling lessened superiority to McDonald’s burger flipper justifies not increasing their minimum wage. Besides, your sister’s work helps save lives, and burger flipper kind of helps do the opposite, so your sister should feel superior anyway. 🙂
      After all, money isn’t the only thing that determines our self-worth.


      Comment by List of X | January 3, 2015 | Reply

      • * facepalm * I really felt bad writing about the McDonald’s workers. My sister worked there for 2 years, and 3 years at WalMart. It was hard work. She carried burn ointment in her purse everyday. ( and I’m still scooping ice cream at Baskin and Robbins, and selling clothes, 2 jobs, while going to school , so I know what it feels like ) Ugh…. Okay, I should have zrpped my mouth. :/


        Comment by renxkyoko | January 4, 2015

      • You have a right to your opinion! This topic points out the frustrations surrounding wages in general and the realities of ‘profits before people’. I also believe that as a Microbiologist, your sister deserves a substantial pay raise!!


        Comment by raemd95 | January 5, 2015

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