Economic Snapshot | Wages, Incomes, and Wealth

Another year of congressional inaction has further eroded the federal minimum wage

This week marks the eighth anniversary of the last time the federal minimum wage was raised, from $6.55 to $7.25 on July 24, 2009. Since then, the purchasing power of the federal minimum wage has fallen by 12.5 percent as inflation has slowly eroded its value. However, this decline in the buying power of the minimum wage over the past eight years is not even half the overall decline in the minimum wage’s value since the late 1960s. As the figure below shows, at its high point in 1968, the federal minimum wage was equal to $9.90 in today’s dollars. That means that workers at the minimum wage today are paid roughly 27 percent less than their counterparts almost 50 years ago.

Measuring the minimum wage against changes in prices is only one way to think of where it could be today. Given growth in the economy and improvements in labor productivity over the past half century, the minimum wage could have been raised to a point considerably higher than its 1968 inflation-adjusted value. As the middle line in the figure shows, if the minimum wage had been raised since 1968 at the same growth rate as average wages of typical U.S. workers, it would be $11.62 today. (We measure wages here by changes in average hourly earnings of nonsupervisory production workers, a group that comprises roughly 80 percent of all U.S. workers and excludes highly-paid supervisors and executives.)

Snapshot

The federal minimum wage would be much higher if it had kept up with a growing economy

Actual minimum wage (2017$) Minimum wage if it had grown with average wages Minimum wage if it had grown with productivity
1938  $       3.80
1939  $       4.63
1940  $       4.60
1941  $       4.38
1942  $       3.95
1943  $       3.72
1944  $       3.66
1945  $       4.77
1946  $       4.40
1947  $       3.85
1948  $       3.56 $5.67
1949  $       3.61 $5.75
1950  $       6.68 $5.84
1951  $       6.19 $6.29
1952  $       6.07 $6.46
1953  $       6.03 $6.65
1954  $       5.98 $6.88
1955  $       6.00 $6.99
1956  $       7.89 $7.28
1957  $       7.63 $7.29
1958  $       7.42 $7.49
1959  $       7.37 $7.64
1960  $       7.25 $7.92
1961  $       8.25 $8.06
1962  $       8.17 $8.31
1963  $       8.76 $8.62
1964  $       8.65 $8.92
1965  $       8.51 $9.21
1966  $       8.28 $9.49
1967  $       8.99 $9.78
1968  $       9.90    $                    9.90 $9.90
1969  $       9.47  $                 10.08 $9.94
1970  $       9.03  $                 10.18 $10.08
1971  $       8.66  $                 10.39 $10.46
1972  $       8.40  $                 10.85 $10.73
1973  $       7.90  $                 10.83 $10.99
1974  $       8.99  $                 10.56 $10.82
1975  $       8.71  $                 10.41 $11.06
1976  $       9.03  $                 10.54 $11.37
1977  $       8.49  $                 10.64 $11.50
1978  $       9.15  $                 10.76 $11.59
1979  $       9.15  $                 10.60 $11.61
1980  $       8.80  $                 10.30 $11.52
1981  $       8.68  $                 10.22 $11.77
1982  $       8.19  $                 10.19 $11.59
1983  $       7.85  $                 10.19 $11.94
1984  $       7.54  $                 10.13 $12.25
1985  $       7.29  $                 10.08 $12.46
1986  $       7.16  $                 10.11 $12.72
1987  $       6.93  $                 10.02 $12.78
1988  $       6.68  $                    9.98 $12.93
1989  $       6.41  $                    9.93 $13.03
1990  $       6.92  $                    9.85 $13.22
1991  $       7.47  $                    9.80 $13.30
1992  $       7.29  $                    9.79 $13.80
1993  $       7.11  $                    9.80 $13.85
1994  $       6.97  $                    9.85 $13.96
1995  $       6.80  $                    9.88 $14.02
1996  $       7.40  $                    9.95 $14.29
1997  $       7.86  $                 10.11 $14.53
1998  $       7.75  $                 10.38 $14.83
1999  $       7.59  $                 10.53 $15.22
2000  $       7.34  $                 10.59 $15.55
2001  $       7.14  $                 10.68 $15.79
2002  $       7.03  $                 10.82 $16.24
2003  $       6.87  $                 10.87 $16.77
2004  $       6.69  $                 10.80 $17.22
2005  $       6.47  $                 10.74 $17.52
2006  $       6.27  $                 10.80 $17.62
2007  $       6.92  $                 10.92 $17.74
2008  $       7.47  $                 10.92 $17.78
2009  $       8.29  $                 11.29 $18.15
2010  $       8.16  $                 11.37 $18.68
2011  $       7.91  $                 11.24 $18.71
2012  $       7.75  $                 11.18 $18.81
2013  $       7.64  $                 11.24 $18.87
2014  $       7.52  $                 11.32 $18.97
2015  $       7.51  $                 11.54 $19.07
2016  $       7.41  $                 11.68 $19.10
2017  $       7.25   $                 11.62 $19.33 
ChartData Download data

The data below can be saved or copied directly into Excel.

Note: Growth in average wages measures anverage wages of production workers. Inflation measured using the CPI-U-RS and the CPI projection for 2017 from CBO (2017). Productivity is measured as total economy productivity net depreciation.

Source: EPI analysis of the Fair Labor Standards Act and amendments. Total economy productivity data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Labor Productivity and Costs program. Average hourly wages of production nonsupervisory workers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Employment Statistics.

Copy the code below to embed this chart on your website.

Prior to 1968, the federal minimum wage was raised at roughly the same pace as growth in labor productivity—i.e., the rate at which the average worker can produce income from each hour of work. This makes sense—if the economy as a whole can produce more income per hour of work, it means there’s capacity for wages across the distribution to grow at a similar rate. Had the minimum wage risen at the same pace as productivity after 1968, it would be over $19 per hour today.

No matter how you measure it, it’s clear that the federal minimum wage is overdue for an increase. If we raised it to $15 by 2024, 41 million American workers would benefit. Read more about who would benefit from raising the minimum wage.

 


See related work on Minimum wage

See more work by David Cooper