Living on Minimum Wage

At least one part of the labor force has expanded significantly since the recession hit: the low-wage part, made up of burger flippers, home health aides and the like.

Put simply, the recession took middle-class jobs, and the recovery has replaced them with low-income ones, a trend that has exacerbated income inequality. According to Labor Department data, about 1.7 million workers earned the minimum wage or less in 2007. By 2012, the total had surged to 3.6 million, with millions of others earning just a few cents or dollars more.

In his State of the Union address in February, President Obama made raising the federal minimum wage his banner economic proposal. The White House argued that increasing the wage to $9 an hour from its current $7.25 and indexing it to inflation would lift hundreds of thousands of families above the poverty line.

Combined with tax measures the administration has supported, Alan B. Krueger, the departing chairman of the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers, said that raising the minimum wage would undo “a lot of the rise in inequality we’ve seen over the last 20 years.”

But the proposal has gone nowhere. Democrats in Congress put forward a bill raising the minimum wage to more than $10 an hour, and their Republican counterparts voted it down.

Many conservatives and some economists say that raising the cost of employing workers results in fewer workers. “What happens when you take away the first couple of rungs on the economic ladder, you make it harder for people to get on,” John A. Boehner, the House speaker, has said.

Mr. Krueger disagrees. His work with David Card of the University of California, Berkeley (later replicated by others) demonstrated in a real-life experiment that raising the minimum wage did not result in businesses shedding workers, perhaps in part because it helped reduce turnover.

But for now, it seems the minimum will stay where it is. Because of inflation, the minimum wage loses value over time if it is not bumped up. Accounting for inflation’s effects, it is now worth less than in the 1960s and 70s. And, as the people pictured here can attest, getting by on it — whether the federal minimum or a state version, which can be somewhat higher — is getting harder.

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