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posted: 2/14/2014 5:01 AM

Responding to minimum wage proposals

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  • Michael Saltsman

    Michael Saltsman

By Michael Saltsman

Faced with an electorate that's soured on the health care law, Democrats have settled on a plan to boost their 2014 prospects: an aggressive push to raise the minimum wage, as featured in the president's State of the Union speech. By making wage hikes a focal point at the ballot box or in a campaign platform, they hope to shift the conversation from Obamacare to old-fashioned class warfare. It may be a cynical strategy, but it's one the GOP can't afford to ignore.

Pushing for a wage hike is an election-year tactic that's borne fruit in the past for Democrats. For instance, a 2007 study by the left-wing Ballot Initiative Strategy Center found that minimum wage ballot initiatives in the 2006 midterms energized Democratic voters in states such as Missouri, Ohio, Arizona and Colorado.

The Missouri example is instructive: Democrat Claire McCaskill made raising the state's minimum wage a focal point of her 2006 Senate campaign, and incumbent Jim Talent failed to provide a convincing rebuttal. (In an article in the Columbia Business Times published the weekend before Election Day, Talent had yet to take a stance on the initiative.) McCaskill triumphed by just under 50,000 votes in a state that George W. Bush had won two years earlier by seven points.

Even when the minimum wage isn't on the ballot, its presence on the campaign trail can be difficult for Republicans. In the 2010 Senate special election in West Virginia, Republican John Raese called for the minimum wage to be abolished, arguing that "you don't want government to set price controls." The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee pounced, claiming Raese was out of touch with "West Virginia values." Democrat Joe Manchin won by 10 points.

Here's the take-away for 2014: Ignoring the minimum wage won't make it disappear, especially if proponents are determined to keep the issue in the spotlight. Similarly, a textbook lesson about price controls and the labor market might win you plaudits from economics professors, but it'll appear heartless to voters who've seen their own paychecks shrink in the past few years.

Republicans are campaigning against Obamacare in 2014 -- not the minimum wage. But when the issue comes up -- and it will come up -- GOP candidates shouldn't back down. Instead, focus on the real-world consequences of wage hikes. New survey data from ORC International, commissioned by the Employment Policies Institute, provides some direction: While 72 percent of the public supports a $10.10 minimum wage, over half of those supporters would change their minds if they knew the policy would encourage service-industry businesses to replace employees with automated, self-service alternatives. The results are similar if supporters are told the wage hike would make it difficult for young minority teens to find work.

These consequences aren't hypothetical -- they're already happening, as anyone who has checked themselves out at a grocery store or retailer has experienced.

Meanwhile, unemployment for 16- to 19-year-olds has been above 20 percent for more than five years, and research from economists at Miami and Trinity University confirms that at least 114,000 teen jobs were lost as a consequence of the last federal wage hike.

So here's a piece of advice for GOP candidates: Be ready. If your opponent wants to know if you support raising the minimum wage, put the question back at them: Ask if they think it's a good idea to raise the cost of hiring young adults by 40 percent when one in five already can't find work. If your opponent falsely claims that raising the minimum wage won't cost jobs, point them to the overwhelming research consensus that says otherwise -- or ask them to explain their argument to small business owners in your city or state who are barely breaking even.

We're surrounded by the fallout from the "good intentions" of minimum wage proponents, and it's time they were held accountable. If Republicans are willing to claim the moral high ground on wage issues, then 2014 might be the year it happens.

• Michael Saltsman is research director at the Employment Policies Institute.

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