Imagine you’re at the checkout line at the supermarket and the clerk asks how much income your family earns each year. Offended, you ask why that is any of her business.
“We need to know to determine how much sales tax you need to pay,” the checker politely explains. “If you’re classified as the ‘working poor’ you need to pay more sales tax.”
“I think you have that backwards,” you helpfully add. “You mean the working poor need to pay less sales tax, right?”
“Oh, no sir,” she say, still blissfully cheerful. “It’s a new anti-poverty program initiated by the federal government that helps the poor by making them pay an addition sales tax on their groceries.”
Although it isn’t stated so clearly or applied so directly, the federal government has in fact implemented an “anti-poverty” initiative that does just that. As economist Thomas Macurdy says, “Most Americans wouldn’t cheer this program, nor would most political leaders champion it. Yet that is what happens when Congress raises the minimum wage.”
Earlier this year Macurdy published a study in the Journal of Political Economy that examined the effect of the minimum wage on the poor. As he explains in the Wall Street Journal, his findings show that the minimum wage serves as a tax on the poor:
My analysis, using the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditure Survey, showed that the 1996 minimum-wage hike raised prices on a broad variety of goods and services. Food purchased outside of the home bore the largest share of the increased consumption costs, accounting for 21% with an average price increase of slightly less than of 2%; the next highest shares were around 10% for such commodities as retail services, groceries and household personal services.
Overall, the extra costs attributable to higher prices equaled 0.63% of the nondurable goods purchased by the poorest fifth of families and 0.52% of the goods purchased by the top fifth—with the percentage falling as the income level rose.
The higher prices, in other words, resembled a regressive value-added, or sales, tax, with rates rising the lower a family’s income. This is sharply contrary to normal tax policy. A typical state sales tax has a uniform rate—but with necessities such as food excluded, and this exclusion (which exists as well in countries with a value-added tax) is adopted expressly to lower the effective tax rate on consumption by people with lower incomes.
My analysis concludes that more poor families were losers than winners from the 1996 hike in the minimum wage. Nearly one in five low-income families benefited, but all low-income families paid for the increase through higher prices.