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To Fix Education, Repeal the Minimum Wage

Many things can be done to address the unequal quality of education in the United States. Most proposed solutions address the quality of the education itself, including reforming the school curriculum, reducing student-to-teacher ratios, improving school discipline, hiring better teachers, busting unions who do not have students’ best interests at heart, and broadening school choice for parents, among many other strategies. These are all mitigation strategies against the predictably negative outcomes wrought by generally poor education.

As with many issues, adaptation is a critical a strategy to consider as mitigation. While we should fix flaws in our education system itself, in the short term we should also find strategies to adapt to it: that is, to maximize the probability at success for those students who are, though no fault of their own, subject to subpar education. These students should still be able to succeed, and we need to create the pathways for them to overcome the weaknesses in their education so it does not become a death sentence for their lifetime professional prospects.

One tool we have to do this is to eliminate the minimum wage.

While the minimum wage is often analyzed through the lens of its ability to financially support the weighty lifestyle costs of a family of four, a role it rarely serves, it is far less talked about through the lens of its more “real world” utility: as the bridge for many non-college graduates who received subpar educations between high school and the workforce.

The reason this second lens is important is that, for many, the minimum wage acts as a de facto barrier to entry to that workforce. For these individuals, minimum wage will be the first wage they seek on their very first job applications. The higher the minimum wage, the fewer jobs they’ll be competitive to land, and the fewer employers who will be able to give them an initial footing into the workforce. This is especially true for those whose educations did not prepare them well. The less prepared someone is for work, the more they depend on the ability for companies to be able to hire them at low wages. And the less prepared they are relative to their better educated peers who are also competing for low-wage work, the more they depend on the ability to win the job over those peers by offering their own services for less money. It stands to reason that for equal mandated pay, an employer is inevitably going to hire the better-prepared graduate and ignore the less prepared one, whereas if disparate pay is possible, they may have a tougher decision on their hands: hire the better prepared graduate for more money or the less prepared graduate for less money.

The contradiction becomes obvious that one cannot simultaneously believe that the education is better preparing some for entry into the workforce than others, while also in good faith believing a high minimum wage is in the national interest. The higher the minimum wage, the more it takes away the ability for less prepared graduates to compete for entry into the workforce by offering their services for lower wages. And the higher the minimum wage, the larger and more competitive the pool of applicants will be for work at entry-level establishments. None of that is good for those whose educations did not prepare them well.

Entering the workforce at disparate wages is the greatest tool people whose educations did not prepare them well have to eventually catch up to their better educated peers in the workforce. After all, the way these people will catch up is through on-the-job training. They can certainly catch up, but they need a foothold in order to do so. Since it is not the responsibility of the workplace to offer them charity, without the ability to be hired for low wages, companies won’t be able to give them that foothold as they won’t be competitive for the higher-wage jobs. On-the-job training has to come at a cost.

The only way a high minimum wage makes any sense at all is if we earnestly believe all education is equal (it is not) or if we don’t believe the value of work to employers should matter (it should). The second case reflects the visions of an abstract fantasyland that many who propagate this position may hold, but it does not reflect a viable reality.

Milton Friedman frequently made this point about the value of low wage work to giving people access to the ladders of success in America (he himself started out making $0.78 a day), but unfortunately Mr. Friedman passed way in 2006. His wisdom could serve us well now, especially those who will inadvertently be hurt by this well-intentioned folly. As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.


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