- Democrats want a $15 minimum wage policy to be included in President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion Covid relief plan.
- A $15 hourly pay scale would more than double the current $7.25 federal minimum wage.
- It still wouldn't offer a living wage to low-paid single adults and families in many areas, according to a CNBC analysis of state cost-of-living data.
A $15 minimum wage could become a reality in the U.S.
While millions would get a pay boost from a higher national wage floor, it would still fall short of paying many workers a "living wage" — the salary a person or family needs to cover their basic expenses.
That's especially true for families, largely due to higher living costs like childcare, relative to single adults.
Even with a raise to $15 per hour, a typical family of four couldn't afford the basics in any U.S. state, according to a CNBC analysis of cost-of-living data assembled by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (This example assumes two kids and two adults working full-time for minimum pay.)
The data weighs costs like food, childcare, health care, housing, transportation and other necessities. It doesn't include income from safety net programs for the poor.
Single adults without kids would generally fare better than families, according to the analysis. But, in about half of states, the cost of living would still eclipse earnings for workers paid $15 an hour.
The shortfalls would generally be greatest for workers in the West and Northeast — in states like California, Hawaii, Massachusetts and New York, as well as the District of Columbia — where the cost of living and taxes tend to be higher.
"When people are screaming [that a $15 minimum wage] is such a radical proposition, the radical thing about it is, quite frankly, how low it would actually be," said Judy Conti, government affairs director at the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group.
The Covid pandemic has thrust the concept of a living wage into starker relief, as advocates claim frontline and essential workers (often women and people of color) are underpaid for their labor while putting their health at risk.
Democrats are trying to pass more pandemic aid by mid-March, though survival of the minimum-wage measure isn't assured. Biden reportedly told state officials last week that the pay hike was unlikely to survive in the near term but promised to continue pursuing the policy.
A $15 minimum wage would more than double the current federal standard.
The current national rate — $7.25 an hour, or about $15,000 a year before taxes for a full-time worker — was set in 2009. It doesn't rise with the cost of living, so its purchasing power has eroded over time.
Many states have adopted a higher pay scale. Some cities and businesses have done the same.
But 21 states were using the federal minimum as of January this year, according to the Department of Labor. (Some, like Virginia, recently passed laws to raise it.)
The U.S. minimum is less than half the "living wage" for a single adult ($15.41 an hour, or roughly $32,000 a year before tax), according to national data compiled by MIT. It's a third of what a family of four needs to live — around $21.50 per hour per parent, or almost $90,000 a year combined. And the effects are compounded for single parents.
"People are not surviving on the minimum wage," said Amy Glasmeier, a professor of economic geography and regional planning at MIT, who created a database of regional living wages in 2004 and updates it annually.
Affording everyday items can be a challenge. For example, having a cell phone and broadband internet access — tightly linked to one's ability to get and hold a job in the digital age — costs about $120 a month, Glasmeier said. That's almost 10% of a low-wage earner's budget.
Low-paid workers may need to work extra jobs to pay bills, and are often unable to save for emergencies or store away money to buy assets like a house, Glasmeier said.
And there may be spillover effects in areas like health, if people consistently buy low-cost, processed foods because that's all they can afford, she said.
The current wage shortfall relative to the cost of living is generally greatest for workers in the South and Midwest. There, the cost of living tends to be lower — but so does the minimum pay.
In these areas, a $15 minimum wage would have a bigger effect relative to closing the living-wage gap, data show.
Of course, state averages mask variation at more micro levels.
For example, it can cost less to live in suburban and rural areas than in cities, though there are exceptions, Glasmeier said.
Workers in certain occupations and industries are also often disadvantaged by regional variation in pay, she said. For example, food preparation jobs in rural areas pay much lower wages than those in cities — creating a larger shortfall for such workers in rural areas versus cities.
Even among metro areas, there are pronounced differences. In San Francisco and San Jose, California, for example, a family of four would need around $130,000 a year ($31 an hour) to afford the basics. In Jackson, Mississippi, and Memphis, Tennessee, it's closer to $79,000 ($19 an hour).
By comparison, in Holmes County, Mississippi, a rural area north of Jackson, the living wage is below $17 an hour for a family, according to MIT data.
Regional variations have led some to conclude the federal government shouldn't adopt a uniform national minimum wage.
"To say a $15-per-hour minimum wage is the living wage just doesn't make sense," said Rachel Greszler, an economist at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
"In some places, it's actually not enough, if you're talking about a wage to support a family," she said. "In other places, it might be an adequate wage to support a family."
If Washington decides to raise the pay floor, federal lawmakers should also adjust the minimum wage regionally according to the area's median pay, Greszler said.
However, this approach would suppress wages in certain areas for people of color, who disproportionately earn the minimum wage, said Conti of the National Employment Law Project.
"We don't want to put more systemic racism into it," she said. "That's what enshrining regional minimum wages at national level would do."
Critics argue a national pay increase would lead businesses to cut jobs due to higher labor costs, potentially outweighing the benefits.
Around 27 million Americans would get a pay increase by mid-decade and 900,000 would be lifted out of poverty due to a $15 minimum wage, according to the Congressional Budget Office. But there would also be 1.4 million fewer jobs because of the policy, CBO predicted.
It would also cause the cost of childcare to increase 21%, on average, or around $3,700 for a family with two kids, Greszler predicts, negating some of the wage gains.
"It'd boost the income of some but lose income for others" Greszler said. "I don't think those are very good tradeoffs."
However, some economists dispute the Congressional Budget Office analysis.
"We believe that the CBO's assumptions on the scale of job loss are just wrong and inappropriately inflated relative to what cutting-edge economics literature would indicate," according to economists at the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank.
One meta-analysis, authored by Arindrajit Dube, an economist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, found a job impact near zero when examining evidence of various minimum-wage increases.
A higher wage would also significantly reduce government spending on programs to support low earners, like food stamps and the earned-income and child tax credits, according to EPI.