Who Earns Minimum Wage? A Statistical Profile

There's been some discussion recently among moneybloggers about writing more for those who earn the minimum wage, and for those who face other financial difficulties. This is a good thing. But all this talk made me wonder: How prevalent is the minimum wage? Who works minimum wage jobs? I decided to do some research.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the median annual income of a U.S. worker is $32,140. Federal minimum wage is currently $5.85 an hour, or about $11,500 per year — just above the poverty line. Of the 76.5 million people paid by the hour in the United States in 2006, 2.2% make minimum wage or less. Here are some generalizations we can make about minimum wage workers:

  • Most minimum wage earners are young. While 2.2% of all hourly workers earn minimum wage or less, just 1.4% of workers over the age of 25 are paid at or below the Federal minimum wage. More than half (51.2%) of minimum wage workers are between 16 and 24 years old. Another 21.2% are between 25 and 34.
  • Most minimum wage earners work in food service. Nearly two-thirds of those paid minimum wage (or less) are food service workers. Many of these people receive supplemental income in the form of tips, which the government does not track.
  • Most minimum wage earners never attended college. Just 1.2% of college graduates are paid the minimum wage. If you only have a high school degree, you're more likely (1.9%) to be paid minimum wage. Those without a high school degree are nearly three times as likely (3.7%) to earn minimum wage. 59.8% of all minimum wage workers have no advanced education.
  • Finally, as you might expect, part-time workers are five times more likely to be paid the minimum wage than full-time workers.

You can find more information at the official characteristics of minimum wage workers page, and in the page of data tables. Also, the Department of Labor has a map that shows how state minimum wage rates compare to Federal minimum wage rates:

These statistics mirror my own experience. When I earned minimum wage, I was working on farms or in restaurants. I was young. The other people I knew who earned minimum wage were also young. As an adult, I've known a few people who earned at (or just above) minimum wage. These people have usually lacked a college education. In many cases, they were actually working toward some sort of degree while they worked their minimum wage job. Most people don't see a minimum wage job as an end, but as a means to an end.

That's not to say that there aren't those who aren't stuck in bad situations. Research from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates:

Many workers begin their post-school careers in jobs paying the minimum or something close to it, but…the vast majority of workers move on to higher paying jobs as they accumulate experience. However, there is a nontrivial fraction of workers who spend substantial portions of their early careers consistently working in minimum wage jobs. […] Less educated persons, blacks, women with young children, and workers who reside outside of urban areas are much more likely to have such minimum wage careers.

The percentage of hourly workers paid at or below the Federal minimum wage has declined steadily (and significantly) since the numbers were first tracked in 1979. In 1980 and 1981, 15.1% of workers were paid at or below the minimum wage. In 2006, just 2.2% of workers were paid at or below the minimum wage. (A strong argument could be made that the minimum wage has failed to keep pace with the cost of living, and that employers have been raising wages on their own. In other words, this statistic may be meaningless.)

Enough numbers! Later today I'll explore ways for those trapped in minimum wage jobs to get ahead. It's not all about pinching pennies. I'd also like to hear stories from people who have worked minimum wage jobs in the past, and from those who still do. If I collect enough stories, I'll post them in a separate entry. (If you'd like to share your story, please drop me a line, or post it in this forum thread.)

Update: I've posted my piece on how to escape from minimum wage.

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