THE MINIMUM WAGE IN THE 1990S
AS THE 1990s opened, what had come of the long endeavor to create a universal and equitable minimum wage policy? By comparison with Britain, with its record of pragmatism and inertia, Americans had won much in principle. More than 90 percent of American workers were covered by minimum wage legislation, compared with only 10 percent in Britain. 1 Examined in practice, however, this achievement fades. In each nation, minimum wage rates were low compared with average earnings, in each only a small minority of the work force actually benefited from the statutory wage rates, and in each a majority of those who benefited were women.
In 1992, the American minimum wage of $4.25 an hour was approximately 40 percent of the average wage of industrial workers. 2 In Britain, where rates in 1992 were still set industry by industry, the average Wages Council hourly rate of approximately £2.80 was just over 37 percent of average earnings. 3 How far below the average should the minimum sit? By the old criterion of parasitic industries, no lower than the cost of subsistence for the worker. But it remains true, as James J. Mallon observed in 1914, that “is there anything harder than to affirm a standard of well-being generally applicable to great populations?” 4 In 1980, a British study defined “low pay” at approximately the level of entitlement to income supplements for impoverished families; Wages Council rates for a comparable week's work brought in some 75 percent of this figure. Likewise, American estimates suggest that the minimum rate has usually been at or below the poverty line. 5 In neither country have minimum wages met NASL's modest demand for “a wage upon which at any rate life can be maintained.” 6
In Britain, the intention was only ever to cover a minority of workers. Twenty-six industries, 10 percent of the work force, were designated in 1992; 96 percent of the 2.5 million people involved were employed in a few service industries, especially catering, and in clothing manufacture. In the United States, the difference between 90 percent covered in principle and 10 percent benefiting in practice was achieved by different means. The single flat-rate wage set by Congress, though rising from twenty-five cents in 1938 to $4.25 in 1993, has always been so low that the majority of workers already earn as much or more. Business interests jealous of profits and control, organized labor jealous of bargaining prerogatives, have been able to ensure this outcome. 7 The fact that, in both nations, upward of two-thirds of those benefiting have been women is testimony to the survival of gendered norms and structures in the