The United States Leads in Low-Wage Work and the Lowest Wages for Low-Wage Workers

Fast-food workers across the country are on strike today, as a way of demanding higher wages and calling attention to the extremely low wages of low-wage workers. As Elise Gould shows in her recent paper, Why America’s Workers Need Faster Wage Growth—And What We Can Do About It, the wages of low-wage workers (the 10th percentile of wage earners) declined by five percent over the 1979-2013 period, despite a generation of productivity gains (64.9 percent).

Low-wage workers in the United States also fare very poorly by international standards, as the OECD’s recent Employment Outlook report reminds us. In the United States, according to the OECD, 25.3 percent of workers had “low-pay”—earning less than two-thirds of the median wage—which was the highest incidence of low-pay work among the twenty-six countries surveyed and far higher than the OECD average of 16.3 percent. In fact, as the figure below shows, low-wage workers fare worse in the United States than any other OECD nation. Low-wage workers earned just 46.7 percent of that of the median worker—far beneath the OECD average of 59.9 percent in 2012. To catch up to the OECD average, U.S. low wage workers would need a 28 percent wage boost.