Living Wage and How It Compares to the Minimum Wage

How much do you need to live in America?

Warehouse worker using laptop

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The living wage is the amount of income determined to provide a decent standard of living. It should pay for the cost of living in any location. It should also be adjusted to compensate for inflation. The purpose of a living wage is to make sure that all full-time workers have enough money to live above the federal poverty level.

The minimum wage is the wage mandated by law, to keep employees above the poverty level in their area. However, the minimum wage is simply not enough to provide one with the means to live. It also is not enough to cover medical, auto, or renters and homeowner's insurance.

Living Wage vs. Minimum Wage

The living wage is often confused with the national minimum wage. In fact, the terms are often used interchangeably. The U.S. Congress originally created the minimum wage with the intent to provide a living wage.

The minimum wage is an amount set by law, whereas the living wage is determined by average costs to live. The amount needed to provide a living wage depends on what is included in the calculation. The amount set by lawmakers for the minimum wage must take into account the needs of businesses as well as workers. They must also consider the overall impact on the economy.

The minimum wage was originally set to allow workers enough income to stay out of poverty. The minimum wage concept has failed because it hasn't kept pace with the rising cost of living, causing many working people to live below the poverty level.

The minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. If it had been indexed to the consumer price index since 1968, the minimum wage would have been $10.15 in 2019. If it had kept pace with worker productivity and been adjusted for inflation, it would have been $24 in 2020.

Average health insurance premiums in 2021 were $7,739 for single coverage and $22,221 for family coverage. People making the minimum wage cannot afford health insurance. They must rely on Obamacare subsidies or free health clinics. For these reasons, many people want the minimum wage raised.

Living Wage vs. Poverty Level

In 2020, the Department of Health and Human Services set the federal poverty level at $27,750 for a family of four. That's equivalent to about $13.34 per hour for a full-time worker. A living wage must at least be greater than the poverty level.

A worker making the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour would be below the poverty level. A household of four would need two people working minimum wage jobs to even hope to reach a living wage.

Least and Most Expensive Cities

Even those making the minimum wage and living above the poverty level aren't making a living wage. For example, the cheapest metropolitan area in the country is Brownsville-Harlingen, Texas. The MIT living wage calculator says that a single person must earn $12.76 an hour to afford to live there.

That covers the average housing, medical, food, and transportation costs. If the national minimum wage isn't a living wage in even the cheapest city in the country, it's not a living wage anywhere.

On the other hand, one of the most expensive U.S. metropolitan areas is New York City. MIT's calculator estimates the living wage in Manhattan to be $21.77 an hour for a single adult. The calculator assumes housing costs of $19,980 a year. It would be difficult to find an apartment in Manhattan for $1,665 a month. Even at a living wage, you'd need roommates.

The Complications of Mandating Wages

Mandating a national living wage would be complicated to implement. The cost of living varies between cities and regions. Many cities and states have indexed their minimum wages to inflation, which compensates for any rises in the cost of living.

A government would have to order certain areas to pay certain wages. When the government gets that detailed, the system becomes a command economy, where all economic decisions are made by a central government. This restricts the natural dynamics of the free market economy and leads a country in the opposite direction of freedom.

There would be a similar problem in instituting a universal basic income. It is a government guarantee that everyone receives a minimum income. The concept has gained popularity as a way to offset job losses caused by technological advancements.

The government has a legitimate role in setting a minimum wage. Congress should increase the minimum wage annually to ensure it keeps up with inflation. While tackling the increase of the minimum wage, legislators should be taking a hard look at the amount of money required to live, not simply exist.

Living Wage Calculators

A living wage calculator shows the hourly rate needed to pay for typical basic costs in a given location. These costs are food, health care, rent, transportation, childcare, and taxes. The cost estimates are taken from government and non-profit surveys of such costs.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology provides the well-known Living Wage Calculator. The Institute developed it in 2004 and updates it in the first quarter of each year. The calculator shows the minimum wage, poverty wage, and living wage for each of the 50 states, and the counties in them. It also shows in numerical order, from high to low, of the pay for certain occupations. 

The general concept behind these calculators was to give employees and businesses a frame of reference for wages in the area they live and operate in.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Which state has the highest minimum wage?

Washington has the highest state minimum wage, at $14.49 per hour. It also has some of the highest local minimum wages in the country in SeaTac ($17.53 per hour) and Seattle ($17.27 per hour). Washington, D.C.'s minimum wage is slightly higher than that of Washington state, at $15.20 per hour.

When was the last time minimum wage went up?

The federal minimum wage has been $7.25 per hour since July 24, 2009.

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  1. Department of Labor. “Minimum Wage.”

  2. EPI. ”Raising the Federal Minimum Wage to $15 by 2024 Would Lift Pay for Nearly 40 Million Workers.”

  3. Center for Economic and Policy Research. "Correction: This Is What Minimum Wage Would Be If It Kept Pace With Productivity."

  4. Kaiser Family Foundation. “2021 Employer Health Benefits Survey.”

  5. Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. “Poverty Guidelines.”

  6. Living Wage Calculator. “Living Wage Calculation for Brownsville-Harlingen, TX.”

  7. Living Wage Calculator. “Bare Facts About the Living Wage in America 2017-2018.”

  8. Living Wage Calculator. “Living Wage Calculation for New York County, New York.”

  9. Economic Policy Institute. “Minimum Wage Tracker.”

  10. Living Wage Calculator. “About the Living Wage Calculator.”

  11. "States with the Highest and Lowest Minimum Wages in 2022."

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