No, the $15 Minimum Wage Isn’t “Unprecedented”

$15 Now

Socialist council member Kshama Sawant, ruining it for the rest of us.

Everybody likes to refer to the recent spate (yes, I’ll use the word “spate” correctly here, to educate our conservative friends by example) of minimum wage hikes to $15 an hour as “unprecedented.” Even the New York Times referred to the adoption of a $15 minimum wage in Los Angeles as “an unprecedented increase.”

And I suppose $15 an hour is unprecedented, if by “unprecedented” you mean we’ve never had a minimum wage of $15 an hour in the United States before. But if you’re using that definition of “unprecedented,” every single minimum wage increase in America is unprecedented, because the minimum wage always goes higher than it was before.

But Jay L Zagorsky at The Conversation points out that the amount of this minimum wage increase does have precedent. We’ve raised the minimum wage at a higher percentage on several occasions in the past; hell, one time we even raised it all at once rather than by increments, as every city has done so far with the $15 minimum wage:

In 1949, the federal minimum wage was 40 cents per hour. It was increased to 75 cents in 1950, an 88% jump that was intended to account for the inflation that built up during and after World War II. This hefty pay hike – the biggest in a single year – did not appear to crush economic activity. On the contrary, the national unemployment rate fell in subsequent years, to 2.9% in 1953 from 5.9% in 1949.

An 88% increase in LA’s current $9 per hour minimum wage would boost the minimum in one shot to $16.92, well above the $15 being legislated for 2020.

LA’s increase, however, is not a one-year boost but instead will occur over five years. Historical data show a number of times when an increase in the minimum over such a period was quite high.

Go read the whole thing and get some historical context. The $15 minimum wage isn’t a dramatic spike, and it’s certainly not unprecedented. Instead, it’s a single course correction on a long continuum of course corrections.

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Paul Constant
Paul Constant has written about politics, books, and film for Newsweek, The Progressive, the Utne Reader, and alternative weeklies around the country.