Some comments on the Financial Accountability Office of Ontario’s minimum wage commentary
The Financial Accountability Office of Ontario (FAO)—an independent, arm’s length, non-partisan research institute—released a paper on September 12th outlining the likely economic impacts flowing from the pending minimum wage increase (see here). The FAO’s findings are already garnering significant media attention and will almost certainly be used by the opponents of Bill 148 as further proof that the Ontario Government is economically reckless.
Contrary to the study commissioned by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce (which warned of 185,000 jobs lost over two years), the Financial Accountability Office is not institutionally or ideologically wedded to a particular political position. This non-partisanship is reflected in the FAO’s findings, which flagged the potential drawbacks associated with a higher minimum wage, yes, but also included many (though not all) well-documented benefits.
Before I provide my reflection on the study’s contents, I wanted to summarize some of the key findings, both positive and negative.
First the negative findings, which are bound to dominate the headlines:
- The single largest and most potent prediction is that a $15 minimum wage will result in the ‘loss of approximately 65,000 jobs’ (50,000 when we take into consideration the job creation associated with greater consumer spending). This will be the headline-grabbing take away from the study. I will return to this claim below, but it is important to note that a $15 minimum wage will not mean that 50,000 workers will lose their jobs.
- In response to higher payroll costs, business will try to reduce expenses by increasing automation and by substituting minimum wage workers for higher-paid, more productive workers, thus leading to job losses for workers presently at the minimum wage.
- Job losses are expected to be concentrated amongst teens, young adults and recent immigrants.
- Business will attempt to raise prices to deal with the higher payroll costs. This, in turn, is expected to reduce sales, which will trigger further job losses.
- Consumer price inflation is expected to be ratcheted up by 0.5 percent, which will dampen consumer spending.
- The FAO concludes that a higher minimum wage is not an effective tool for alleviating poverty because many people working at the statutory minimum come from affluent (above-median income) households. The FAO estimates that just 27 percent of the total gains in labour income will benefit low-income households, while another one-third will flow to households between the low-income threshold ($46,000) and the median-income households ($92,000), leaving 40 percent of the income gains for households with above-median incomes.
- The overall conclusion is unfavourable: by targeting low-income workers instead of low-income households, the pending increase to Ontario’s minimum wage will fail to significantly reduce poverty, though it will cost many Ontarians their jobs.
On the positive side of things, the FAO’s study notes:
- Roughly 1.6 million workers will be directly affected by the minimum wage increase (that is 22 percent of the labour market), while those currently making $15-$19 per hour will likely be indirectly affected.
- Whereas the majority of people currently working at the statutory minimum wage (520,000 people, or seven percent of the labour market) are either teenagers (15-19 years of age), young adults (20-24) or part-timers, once the $15 minimum wage is brought in, most minimum wage workers will be adults and most will be full-time earners. This suggests that the main group benefitting from the minimum wage increase is the people who are most likely to be economically independent and/or have economic dependents (namely children). I raise this because, ordinarily, the group to be most directly benefitted by an increase to the minimum wage—an increase that would usually range from $0.25 to $1.00—would be the teens and young adults working directly at the statutory minimum. Because the proposed increase to the minimum wage is so large ($3.40/hr over the next 17 months) it will capture many more adults in its net (and many more low-income households, too).
- The new minimum wage is expected to redistribute income from businesses to workers, raise total labour income by 1.3 percent by 2019 and, in turn, boost economic activity. The associated increase in consumer spending will stimulate economic activity and lead to 15,000 new jobs being created, thus partially offsetting the 65,000 expected jobs lost.
- The scholarly research in Canada finds that higher hourly wages are associated with greater employee satisfaction, reduced turnover and associated training costs, and improved labour productivity, all of which was mentioned (or implicitly recognized) by the FAO study (unlike the study commissioned by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, which focused only on the economic costs of Bill 148).
- The scholarly research also suggests that there is no significant impact on adult employment from a higher minimum wage, which the FAO built into their framework.
- There is expected to be a significant spillover effect arising from a $15 minimum wage. The FAO assumed that those currently earning between $15 and $17 per hour would experience a wage increase of 7.5 percent and those currently earning $17 to $19 per hour would see their earnings increase by three percent. So it’s not just those under $15 per hour who are scheduled to see an increase. Those currently between $11.40 and $19 per hour will likely see an increase. That’s a big portion of the labour market that is about to get a pay raise!
In what follows, I elaborate and assess the findings contained in the FAO report.
First, and most significantly, a $15 minimum wage is not expected to cause 50,000 people to be laid off. The language used by the FAO is ambiguous on this issue. They refer, variously, to ‘job losses’ and ‘reduced employment’, but in footnote #5 they refer to three dis-employment effects including outright job losses, decelerating job creation and a reduction in hours worked. In conversation with FAO economists, I asked for clarification on this matter and was told that 50,000 workers are not expected to lose their jobs. Rather, the combined dis-employment effects add up to 50,000 jobs equivalent lost.
I doubt the media will note this, and part of the problem flows from language selection, but there is a difference between an existing worker being laid off and the rate of (future) job creation slowing down. In in the former scenario an actual person is made materially worse off, while in the latter situation, a hypothetical worker—someone who is not presently employed, but who may seek work in the future—is not able to find a job. In public policy research there is a balance to be struck between terminological precision and conceptual clarity, on the one hand, and readability and accessibility on the other. I don’t fault the FAO for their choice of words, but the likelihood that their claim will be misinterpreted by large swaths of the public (and by public officials) will approach 100 percent.
Second, it is not clear that the job loss estimates for teens and young adults are in line with the latest economic research. The FAO explicitly references Morley Gunderson’s research on the interplay between teen and young adult employment and the minimum wage. Without citing them directly, though, in conversation with the FAO I learned that they also relied on a more recent inquiry by Pierre Brochu and David Green, who find a much weaker relationship between a higher minimum wage and the dis-employment effects among young workers. The FAO claims that their estimates are based on the ‘mid-point in the range’ of scholarly estimates, which implies that the negative employment effects may well be too high (or too low, as they note).
Third, the demographic makeup of those who may lose their jobs is surely significant, though it went unmentioned in the study. The FAO notes that the dis-employment effects will be most strongly felt by teenagers and young adults. The FAO also notes that many of the beneficiaries of the minimum wage hike will be workers in households with above-median incomes, some even from very affluent families. The implication, confirmed in conversation with FAO economists, is that 50 percent of the job losses are going to be felt by young workers coming from affluent households. From a policy perspective this is important. There is surely a social (and indeed, moral) difference between an individual losing a job who has significant financial responsibilities, including provision for economic dependents (including children), and someone unable to find work who, themselves, is economically dependent on another adult. If future job creation for affluent teenagers is one casualty of higher earnings for low-income working parents, that may be a policy trade-off that is worth making.
Fourth, the figure of 50,000 sounds high, but there was no timeline attached to this estimate. In correspondence with the FAO, I learned that the dis-employment effects will play themselves out in the ‘short to medium term’, meaning a few months to a few years. This is also significant. 50,000 ‘job losses’ in one month will have a very different macroeconomic effect than 50,000 jobs lost over a three-year period. Likewise, had the FAO not used absolute job loss numbers, relying instead on relative job losses, the public perception would be rather different. Just think of the headline: ‘50,000 jobs lost as a consequence of a $15 minimum wage’ in comparison with ‘0.7 percent of Ontario’s labour market likely to be negatively affected by $15 minimum wage’. Both headlines are equally true, but the public perception in the first will be very negative, while the perception in the latter would be indifference (0.7 percent amounts to a rounding error in the context of a labour market of 7.7 million people).
Fifth, there are significant omissions in the study, some of which were flagged but some of which were overlooked. For example, there is well-documented research linking a broad range of health outcomes with income and socio-economic status (see here and here, for example). Moving up the income ladder is associated with improved health outcomes, including life expectancy, and by implication reductions in health care spending and hospital budgets. The relationship between low-income and health outcomes was flagged in footnote #1, but was excluded from the study.
Likewise, recent research by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton (two of the greatest living economists) finds that there is a positive relationship between income, on the one hand, and happiness, on the other. In this context, ‘happiness’ can mean either ‘emotional well-being’ or ‘overall life satisfaction’. And while these two dimensions of happiness differ in important ways, both rise with one’s income (though emotional well-being maxes out around $75,000 USD). The Government of Ontario has very few policy levers at its disposal that can directly and immediately improve either the emotional well-being or the overall life satisfaction of roughly two million Ontarian workers and their families. Surely this is a lever that should be pulled.
Similarly, while the economic cost associated with absolute poverty was not assessed, the very well-documented positive social consequences associated with reductions in relative poverty (read: income inequality) were completely overlooked. In its review of the literature, the Ontario Government’s 2014 Advisory Panel on the Minimum Wage noted that a higher minimum wage is associated with both reduced wage inequality and overall income inequality. This is a significant omission and, while it may not have fit inside the parameters of the study, policy-makers cannot remain deaf to the call of income inequality.
Sixth, the FAO’s study overlooked the issue of the gender wage gap (and labour market segmentation, generally). Women are over-represented in minimum wage jobs, including part-time status and in some industries that are heavily reliant on low-wage work, including retail and accommodation & food services. Given the policy significance of the gender wage gap for the Ontario Government’s political objectives, this seems like a considerable oversight. An increase to the minimum wage will likely help close the gender wage gap, as will other provisions with Bill 148, including facilitating access to union representation.
Seventh, poverty is a complex phenomenon with many causes. It must be noted that there is an important distinction between the poverty associated with unemployment and/or the absence of income and the poverty associated with a low-paying job. Clearly, an increase in the minimum wage will not help those who are poor because they do not have a job. A higher minimum wage (nor any single policy instrument, for that matter) cannot solve the problem of poverty as such, though boosting the minimum wage can help alleviate working poverty, both relative and absolute.
Eighth and finally, it is not clear to me that, even if we accept the FAO’s estimates as true, their conclusion necessarily follow from the evidence. The FAO states that 1.6 million people will be directly affected by a $15 minimum wage and that those currently working between $15 and $19 will benefit from the spillover effects. In other words, a very large proportion of Ontario’s labour market is set to receive a pay raise. The Ontario Government certainly has other policy options at its disposal when it comes to improving the economic station of the least well off (including the working income tax credit), but to conclude that a higher minimum wage is an ‘ineffective tool’ for dealing with poverty does not seem in line with the FAO’s findings. A more accurate conclusion, from my perspective, is that a higher minimum wage is not the only tool for dealing with poverty. It is one tool in a broad array of tools, but because the minimum wage will give a large chunk of Ontarian workers a pay raise, I fail to see how this tool could be deemed ‘ineffective’.
There is more to say about this study, but I leave it there for now. It is likely to cause quite a stir in the coming weeks. Let’s just hope the policy discussions that flow therein are factually-grounded.