Three-quarters of Americans think the federal minimum wage is too low

Taylor OrthDirector of Survey Data Journalism
December 01, 2022, 6:11 PM GMT+0

As Americans grapple with record-setting inflation, they're increasingly discussing how much society's lowest-paid workers currently earn — and deserve to earn. It's been 13 years since the federal minimum wage was increased in 2009 to $7.25 per hour, and by some estimates, it's lost more than one-fourth of its purchasing power in the time since. Currently, a full-time worker paid the federal minimum wage earns just above the poverty line, taking home around $15,000 per year. The vast majority of Americans believe this is far from sustainable, a recent YouGov poll finds. Most people think the federal minimum wage is higher than it is, and a majority also think it has been raised more recently than 13 years ago. Three-quarters of Americans think it should be increased, and most believe that classes of workers sometimes exempt from federal minimum wage requirements — such as tipped employees, full-time students, and people with disabilities — should not be.

The minimum wage: what it is and what it should be

More than three-quarters (77%) of Americans believe that the federal hourly minimum wage of $7.25 is too low; 13% say it's about right and just 3% say it's too high. Even a majority of people who say they oppose having a federal minimum wage at all say that $7.25 is too low (54%) rather than about right (27%) or too high (10%). Most say the same about their state's minimum wage, which is at least as high as the federal minimum wage. When told what their state's minimum wage is, most Americans say it's too low (64%) rather than about right (24%) or too high (7%). And 62% of Americans say that both the federal minimum wage and the one in their state are too low.

Before informing respondents of what the current federal and state minimum wages are, we asked them to tell us themselves, in dollars and cents, what each is currently set at. Most Americans overestimate the federal hourly minimum wage, offering a median response of $9.88 (meaning half of people think it's an amount lower than this, and half think it's higher). After providing them with the correct answer, $7.25, we then asked them to tell us what they think the federal minimum wage should be, in dollars and cents. The median amount Americans think would be appropriate is $14.88, $5 higher than the median estimate of what it is and double its true level. A similar pattern emerges for estimates of the state minimum wage: Most people underestimate the minimum wage in their state and think it should be higher than it is.

A livable wage

The survey also inquired as to what Americans think constitutes a livable wage in their community, asking them: "Regardless of whether you think there should be a minimum wage, what do you think is the lowest hourly wage a full-time worker could be paid to sustain a basic lifestyle in your community today?" The median value Americans provide in response to this question was $14.78, similar to what Americans said the federal minimum wage should be ($14.88).

Most people — 70% — believe that the current federal minimum wage is set at a level that is "not sustainable to live on for any period of time." Just 17% say it's enough for someone to live a basic lifestyle for a short period of time before finding a higher-paying job, and 5% say it's enough to sustain someone throughout their life at a basic level. Only 2% say it's enough for someone to live comfortably on.

Current and past minimum-wage workers are especially likely to see it as unsustainable: The 78% of Americans who say they have worked for the minimum wage at some point in their lives are 18 percentage points more likely than people who haven't to say the minimum wage is not sustainable for any period of time (75% vs. 57%).

When the minimum wage was last raised

The minimum wage does not increase automatically, but rather requires action by Congress. The last time Congress raised it was 13 years ago, to $7.25 from $6.55. Most Americans aren't aware of the last time the minimum wage was raised: When asked to choose from a list of ranges of time periods, most people said they thought it was increased within the last 12 years. The largest share of people who provided a response thought it was last increased one to three years ago. Just one in 10 correctly identified the range of 13 to 15 years as the last time the minimum wage was raised.

Minimum wage exemptions

Employers of certain classes of workers — including people under 20, seasonal workers, and people with disabilities — are in some circumstances allowed to pay them below the federal minimum wage. When asked whether employers should be required to pay 13 groups of people at least minimum wage, or allowed to pay them below it, fewer than half of Americans said employers should be exempt from paying each group minimum wage. Vast majorities said that employers should be required to pay at least minimum wage to farm and agricultural workers, seasonal workers, workers with disabilities, creative professionals, taxi drivers, and full-time students. Around two-thirds say minimum wage requirements should apply to non-profit workers, tipped workers, live-in domestic workers, and refugees. The big exception is prison inmates: More say inmates' employers should be allowed to pay less than the federal minimum wage than say they shouldn't.

Effects on the economy

Would raising the minimum wage help or hurt the economy? Americans are more than twice as likely to believe that raising the minimum wage would help (53%) rather than hurt (22%) the economy. Three-quarters (73%) of Democrats and 45% of Independents believe raising it would benefit the economy. Republicans are more divided: Similar shares say it will help and hurt the economy.

Common arguments on the minimum wage

We also distilled common arguments regarding the minimum wage into brief statements and measured the extent to which Americans agree or disagree with each one. While there are drawbacks to agree/disagree-style questions, when used in a series they can be useful for comparing attitudes among different groups and across different statements.

One of the strongest arguments about the minimum wage — according to Americans asked whether they agree with a dozen assertions — is that it should be high enough to encourage people currently on welfare to seek out jobs. Nevertheless, Americans are divided as to whether raising the minimum wage would reduce government spending on aid for poor and low-income people, though slightly more strongly or somewhat agree that it would reduce spending than strongly or somewhat disagree.

One common suggestion on how to keep the minimum wage at a sustainable level is to tie it to other factors, such as the cost of goods and services — in the U.S. and at more local levels. Most Americans agree that the minimum wage should be adjusted based on inflation and a similar share think it should vary based on the cost of living in different areas. Slightly fewer believe it should be adjusted automatically based on economic conditions.

Another proposal, covering workers at large companies, would tie the salaries of a company's lowest-paid workers to those of its highest-paid executives. A majority of Americans agree with this argument, believing that the salaries of executives should be capped so they can only earn a certain amount more than their lowest-paid employees. The share who agree with this interventionist approach is much higher than the share who believe the minimum wage should be determined by the free market.

As with many other forms of government intervention in the economy, we find significant differences in Democrats' and Republicans' understandings of the minimum wage. Party members differ most in their views on how increasing the minimum wage would affect discretionary spending: Democrats are twice as likely as Republicans to believe that raising the minimum wage would lead millions of workers to increase their spending, resulting in greater profits for retailers and other businesses. Members of each party also differ in their views on how minimum wage adjustments would affect unemployment: Democrats are more likely than Republicans to believe that increasing the minimum wage would improve employee retention and reduce hiring and training costs.

Republicans tend to think of the minimum wage as a launching pad: The arguments they are most likely to agree with are that it should only be a stepping stone to higher-paying jobs and that it should be high enough to encourage people currently on welfare to seek out jobs. Most Republicans believe the minimum wage should vary based on the cost of living in different locations and think it should be adjusted for inflation. Still, around half think the minimum wage should be left to the free market.

— Carl Bialik and Linley Sanders contributed to this article

This poll was conducted on August 2 - 5, 2022 among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Explore more on the methodology and data for this poll.

Image: Adobe Stock (Hyejin Kang)