I’m not sure whether this meme is taking a shot at people who think minimum wage is too low, or at untrained workers who refuse to work for minimum wage, despite having no skills that would qualify them for a higher-paying job. In any case, I dislike the implication that anybody earning minimum wage is a shiftless, stupid slacker, incapable of making a meaningful contribution to society. In fact, many minimum wage workers are students who are in the process of getting the very education that will one day, hopefully, allow them to work for more than minimum wage.
Now that I’ve said my piece about this meme, let’s talk some more about minimum wage. It is surely one of the most hotly debated topics among political junkies. I thought it would be helpful to compare the buying ability of a minimum wage worker from 1950 to one from 2013. Stand back: I’m going to try MATH!
Let’s start in 1950. The minimum wage in 1950 was seventy-five cents an hour, but of course you didn’t get the full six bits to do with as you pleased. After Uncle Sam and your state government got in on the action, you’d wind up doling out about 22% of your income as taxes, if I’m reading this graph right. So you’d really only bring home about $0.51 an hour. Now let’s take a look at how long you’d have to work to buy things at 1950 prices if you were making minimum wage.
If you netted fifty-one cents an hour in 1950, it would take you:
- 7 hours 51 minutes to buy a Monopoly board game.
- 1 hour 4 minutes to buy a bottle of aspirin.
- About 245 days (straight) to buy a Chevy Corvette (assuming you had no other expenses, of course).
- 1 hour 33 minutes to buy a pound of coffee.
- 24 minutes to buy a gallon of gas.
- 1 hour 36 minutes to buy a gallon of milk.
- 16 minutes to buy a loaf of bread.
- 1 hour 16 minutes to buy a dozen eggs.
I could go on and on, but this gives us a good enough idea of how much it cost to live in 1950. Now let’s fast-forward to 2013, when the federal minimum wage is seven and a quarter. We’re still paying the IRS its due, which means the minimum wage worker is really only walking away with $4.93 an hour. What kind of buying power does this uneducated slob have? Surely a minimum-wage worker must be able to buy a Chevy Corvette after only a fortnight’s labor, to hear some people gripe about it.
In 2013, a minimum wage worker must work:
- 2 hours 38 minutes to buy a Monopoly board game. (-66%)
- 1 hour 25 minutes to buy a bottle of aspirin. (+33%)
- About 419 days (straight) to buy a Chevy Corvette, and that’s assuming you don’t want heated seats. (+71%)
- About 1 hour 13 minutes to buy a pound of coffee. (-22%)
- 44 minutes to buy a gallon of gasoline (as of today). (+83%)
- 43 minutes to buy a gallon of milk. (-55%)
- 17 minutes to buy a loaf of bread. (+6%)
- 24 minutes to buy a dozen eggs. (-68%)
So what can we make of all this? The buying power of the minimum wage worker in 2013 is not significantly greater than the buying power of the minimum wage worker in 1950. Sure, the modern worker may be able to enjoy an extra serving of milk, eggs, and coffee while playing Monopoly, but the cost of other items, particularly gasoline, has risen to compensate. A household doesn’t need a Monopoly game, but almost every household must purchase gasoline…and in much greater weekly quantities than they would purchase of milk, coffee, bread, or eggs. In any case, the minimum wage worker of 2013 is not wealthy, and certainly isn’t asking for a handout.
My trusty calculator