Minimum Wage Myths — "the average minimum wage earner is 35 years old!"

May 4, 2017
By Erin Shannon
Washington Policy Center

U.S. Senators Patty Murray and Bernie Sanders rely on many of these purposely misconceptions in their recent editorial in The Seattle Times announcing they have joined forces to introduce legislation that would impose a $15 national minimum wage.

Today we’re tackling the oft-repeated claim that the typical minimum wage earner is no longer a young person with little or no work experience, but instead is an older, established worker “trying to survive on totally inadequate wages.”

In their editorial, Senators Murray and Sanders say, “Despite a popular misconception, minimum-wage workers are not all high school kids. In fact, the average worker who would benefit from a $15-an-hour minimum wage is age 36.”

It’s important to note they don’t say the average minimum wage earner is 36. They say the average worker who would benefit from their proposed $15 wage is 36. Of course, the higher the proposed minimum wage, the greater the effect of raising both the average and median age of a minimum wage worker.

Which brings us to the importance of differentiating between the median age versus the average age of a minimum wage worker. For example, when a sluggish economy (or an enticingly high minimum wage) send older workers who otherwise would be enjoying their retirement back into the job market, the average age increases significantly. The median age shows the middle point, where half of minimum wage earners are younger and half are older.

So let’s examine who currently earns the minimum wage. The claim is routinely made that the average age of a minimum wage earner is 35 or 36. Wage hike supporters conjure images of middle-age workers who are working full-time as they desperately try to support their family while trapped in low-wage jobs.

The reality is much different. As pointed out by the Pulitzer Prize winning PolitiFact National, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics paints “a starkly different picture of low-wage workers."

According to the BLS, “minimum wage workers tend to be young.” Of the tiny group of workers (just 2.6% of all workers in the U.S.) who earn minimum wage, 45% are under the age of 25, and 60% are under the age of 30. That puts the median age for people earning the minimum much closer to mid-twenties than middle age. To complete the picture, 65% have never been married, nearly 60% work part-time and 62% live with their parents (or another realtive) or are single.

So while Senators Murray and Sanders are correct in asserting that not all minimum wage earners are high school kids, the data clearly shows the majority of them are young and many are still in school. Most are not poor, are not working full-time and are not relying on their wages as the sole source of income to support a family.

In other words, very few are “trying to survive” on their minimum wage earnings.