Manhattan Institute Scholar Peddles Right-Wing Media Myths In Call To Increase Taxpayer Subsidies Of Poverty Wages
Blog ››› ››› ALEX MORASH
A New York Times op-ed by a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute pushed the debunked claim that raising the minimum wage would hurt business and American workers and promoted the expansion of tax credits for workers struggling with poverty. The op-ed failed to mention the high public cost of pushing more of the burden on taxpayers while letting businesses off the hook from paying workers a living wage.
Manhattan Institute senior fellow Peter Salins claimed that raising the minimum wage constitutes “playing a kind of economic Russian roulette” in a July 6 op-ed in The New York Times, suggesting that instead of raising wages, policymakers should ask taxpayers to foot the bill for increased subsidies for poverty wages. Salins’ proposal, which is a common refrain among conservatives, would shield employers from paying a living wage to their full-time workers by expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Salins claimed that advocates for raising the minimum wage “fail to acknowledge” that low-wage workers have access to the EITC.
Echoing a myth frequently promoted by right-wing media, Salins alleged that workers would be “priced out of the labor market by an unrealistically high minimum wage” and that the victories advocates for raising the minimum wage have already won may cause “grievous harm.” A $15 per hour minimum wage, in Salins’ estimation, could “reduce the total number of jobs nationally by three million to five million.” From The New York Times:
In this campaign season, politicians across the country (including the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate and perhaps even the Republican one) have called for raising the minimum wage. Not just marginally, as in the past, but all the way to $15 an hour, more than double the current national level of $7.25. Even elected officials and candidates in states with higher minimum wages like New York have jumped on the $15 an hour bandwagon. Their justification: “You can’t support a family on the current minimum wage.”
What the advocates fail to acknowledge is that minimum-wage workers with families to support are already eligible to receive a financial boost under a national program called the earned-income tax credit. This program, instituted in 1975 and expanded since then, paid benefits to 27.5 million low-income workers in 2014. (That same year, only three million workers fell at or below the federal minimum wage, so the credit also helped millions of other low-wage workers.) Technically, such payments are classified as “refundable tax credits,” paid to qualifying workers when they file their annual income tax returns.
That is the beauty of the tax credit; it helps low-skilled workers in proportion to their household need, taking pressure off the minimum wage as the only guarantor of a “living wage.” The credit thus performs a crucial function in a national labor market where one size most definitely does not fit all, a labor market that is enormously varied by region, by employers’ needs, by workers’ skills and by the potential for jobs to be replaced by technology. By allowing wages to reflect local economic and industry conditions, the earned-income tax credit makes it possible for all unskilled workers to have jobs — including those not eligible for the credit, like teenagers, single young adults or semiretired older people, who would otherwise be priced out of the labor market by an unrealistically high minimum wage.
Salins advocated for policies similar to those recently endorsed by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) and identified Ryan in the op-ed as a supporter of expanding the EITC (Ryan’s proposals also ignore the possibility of raising wages or strengthening worker rights). Salins suggested that a hypothetical working mom in a minimum-wage job with multiple dependent children already stands to benefit from the EITC, even though those income supports combined with her low wages would still leave her entire family in poverty. Salins did not mention that progressive groups such as the Center For American Progress (CAP) support raising the minimum wage and expanding the EITC along with other tax credits targeted at low-income families. The EITC has been shown to assist families in poverty, but it alone does not solve the problem of poverty, which is why CAP supports a multipronged approach to assisting low-income families: expanding EITC, raising the minimum wage, increasing educational opportunities, and strengthening worker protections.
While the EITC program can correctly be called “the most progressive” part of the tax code, expanding the credit would not be free -- and the federal government already spends $68 billion per year on the program. Whereas expanding the EITC would cost taxpayers money, simply raising the minimum wage would actually save money and shift the responsibility of paying a living wage onto businesses. According to a June 2016 report jointly produced by Oxfam America and the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), raising the federal minimum wage to $12 per hour would reduce federal spending on anti-poverty programs like the EITC by $17 billion.
Low-wage industries create burdens on taxpayers; the notoriously low-wage fast food industry alone costs taxpayers nearly $7 billion annually. Salins’ claim that the American economy would lose millions of jobs from a $15 per hour wage is also suspect because he based his numbers off a model that did not predict jobs losses, but rather the potential for a slightly lower rate of job growth. Right-wing media have a long history of pushing the same unsubstantiated arguments that Salins parroted in the Times -- claiming raising the minimum wage will kill jobs, hurt low-wage workers, and harm the economy -- all of which economists have repeatedly debunked.