One million unemployed young people. It had been coming for a while, but when the news broke in November that the number of 16- to 24-year-olds looking for work had reached seven figures, the number retained its power to shock.
Almost 300,000 students seeking part-time work are included in the total, and although directly comparable data are not available, the situation was almost certainly worse in the 1980s. Nevertheless, given the evidence that graduating during a recession can affect one’s earnings for far longer than the recession itself, the case for doing something looks urgent. But what?
To some, such as the Institute for Economic Affairs, the answer is simple: abolish the minimum wage. This is unlikely. Minimum wages gradually fell into disuse after Winston Churchill introduced a minimum wage system in 1909. Yet after Labour introduced a national minimum wage in 1999, grumblers have kept a low profile. David Cameron said in 2005 that it had been a success, while in 2008 George Osborne said that “Modern Conservatives acknowledge the fairness of a minimum wage.”
But that is an odd comment, because the case against the minimum wage was always that the law itself was unfair. A minimum wage forbids workers to sell their labour below a certain price, and therefore would be expected to create unemployment for low-productivity workers. Employers use machines instead.
The theoretical argument is simple and compelling. But is it true? Back in 1994 a remarkable article was published by economists David Card and Alan Krueger. They performed a statistical analysis and concluded that not only did the minimum wage not cost jobs – it might even create them. Amazing.
Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence, and while many economists casually dismissed Card and Krueger, commentators on the left also seized uncritically on the results. Both attitudes are a shame because the research paper is too interesting to ignore. Card and Krueger were pioneers in using what economists call a “natural experiment”: the rise of minimum wages in New Jersey, while in neighbouring Pennsylvania they did not move. They surveyed more than 400 fast-food restaurants in New Jersey and east Pennsylvania and found no great difference between employment trends. Nor did higher-wage establishments display different employment trends to those who had to raise wages relative to the minimum. These methods broke new ground and have been much emulated.
It’s fair to say that not every statistical study has come to the same conclusion. But why might Card and Krueger be right in some cases? If employers have market power in the labour market then they might actually offer a lower wage than the balance of competitive supply and demand would produce. Some workers would rather keep looking or sign up for welfare payments, and so employment is lower at this level. Introduce a minimum wage and both wages and employment increase, while profits fall.
Of course this analysis is time and place specific. Since its introduction in the UK, the minimum wage has outpaced consumer price inflation by about 20 per cent. Even if a minimum wage can offer income for the poor without destroying jobs, it would be complacent to assume this will remain true regardless of economic conditions. The Low Pay Commission has been allowing the minimum wage for younger workers to lag behind. No wonder.
But if a young adult cannot produce enough of value to justify being paid a living wage, nothing we do to the minimum wage will help. He, the institutions which trained him and the society in which he lives, have far bigger problems.
Tim Harford’s latest book is ‘Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure’ (Little, Brown). To comment, please email email@example.com