FiveThirtyEight: It’s Getting Harder To Move Beyond A Minimum-Wage Job

From FiveThirtyEight:

by Ben Casselman

Minimum-wage jobs are meant to be the first rung on a career ladder, a chance for entry-level workers to prove themselves before earning a promotion or moving on to other, better-paying jobs. But a growing number of Americans are getting stuck on that first rung for years, if they ever move up at all.

Anthony Kemp is one of them. In 2006, he took a job as a cook at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Oak Park, Illinois. The job paid the state minimum wage, $6.50 an hour at the time, but Kemp figured he could work his way up.

“Normally, a good cook would make $14, $15, $17 an hour,” Kemp said. “I thought that of course I’d make a better wage.”

He never did; nine years later, the only raises Kemp, 44, has seen have been the ones required by state law. He earns $8.25, the state’s current minimum wage.

Stories like Kemp’s are becoming more common. During the strong labor market of the mid-1990s, only 1 in 5 minimum-wage workers was still earning minimum wage a year later.1 Today, that number is nearly 1 in 3, according to my analysis of government survey data.2 There has been a similar rise in the number of people staying in minimum-wage jobs for three years or longer. (For a more detailed explanation of how I conducted this analysis, see the footnote below.)3

 

 

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Even those who do get a raise often don’t get much of one: Two-thirds of minimum-wage workers in 2013 were still earning within 10 percent of the minimum wage a year later, up from about half in the 1990s. And two-fifths of Americans earning the minimum wage in 2008 were still in near-minimum-wage jobs five years later, despite the economy steadily improving during much of that time.4

 

 

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The trend partly reflects the recession and slow recovery, which has broughtweak wage growth for nearly all workers. But it also likely reflects longer-run shifts in the economy that have eroded workers’ bargaining power, particularly for the less-educated. That sense of stagnation may be part of what is fueling the nationwide push for a higher minimum wage, which hasgained significant momentum in recent years. Voters in five states, including Illinois, approved minimum-wage increases last November,5 and several cities, including Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles, have passed significant wage hikes. Kemp has joined fast-food workers across the country in demonstrations demanding higher pay as part of the union-backed “Fight for $15” movement.6

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