Howard Baetjer, The Freeman, March 2007
This question from a former student named Blake addresses the interaction of two hot political issues: “I remember in class that raising minimum wage is a bad thing to do. My question to you is, since illegal immigrants don’t get paid minimum wage most of the time, does that aid in bringing down wages and creating a positive outcome for the economy?”
My answer was an uneasy yes and no. Any positive or negative outcomes are not for “the economy” as such, only for people. And the people in the economy are all of us, including the illegal immigrants. Illegal immigration may reduce the overall harm done by increases in the minimum wage, but better all around would be legal immigration and no minimum wage. Let’s sort the issues out to see why.
First, Blake is correct that “raising minimum wage is a bad thing to do” because it does most harm to the least-advantaged among us. The benefits of a higher minimum wage are much easier to perceive than the harms. The benefits go to all workers who keep their jobs when the minimum is raised (without losing enough hours’ work to decrease their incomes). They get a pay raise. These are the benefits that minimum-wage advocates focus on.
The harm done by the minimum wage is harder to perceive. The key to understanding it is the insight that nobody will pay an employee more than that employee’s value to the business, at least not for long. If you are the employer and you believe that a low-skilled young person contributes about $6 of value to your company every hour, you’ll be willing to pay that person up to $6 an hour. If an increase in the minimum wage then forces you to raise his pay to $7 an hour, you’ll lose a dollar an hour if you keep him on. You’ll have to lay him off.
Minimum-wage laws that force wages above the rates that would be freely negotiated in the market throw people out of work. This is a fundamental conclusion of economic reasoning, supported by the vast majority of scholarly studies of the minimum wage.
Illegal Immigration’s Effects
How might illegal immigration reduce this harm?
Some immigrants, here illegally to begin with, are also willing to work for illegally low wages. When they do, they help produce goods and services that would otherwise go unproduced, or be produced only at greater cost. Their willingness to work for below-minimum wages thus reduces costs and increases output for consumers. This is probably what Blake had in mind when he referred to illegal immigration “bringing down wages and creating a positive outcome for the economy.” In our example, after the legal minimum wage is raised, you might be able to find illegal immigrants willing to work for less than the minimum. If so, you will be able to keep your prices down and/or stay open later in the evening. Your store, equipment, and workers would stay in productive use; consumers would benefit.
But not everything about this scenario is positive even if illegal immigration does keep actual wages and costs down closer to an appropriate, market-determined level. In certain cases it would be better still for “the economy”for the people in the economyto have certain illegal immigrants paid higher wages than they would receive while immigration is illegal.
Some illegal immigrants who would earn higher wages in a free labor market find themselves trapped in jobs that pay below minimum wage. Why? Because they are afraid that if they leave those jobs for others that pay more, they might be reported and thrown out of the country. This hurts consumers: it would be better to have those immigrants working at the higher-paying jobs instead, because the output of those jobs is more valuable to consumers. Let us imagine, for example, a talented carpenter who can find little work in his own countrylet’s call him Juan. Suppose Juan sneaks across the border, or gets himself smuggled into the United States, to work as a manual laborer at a landscaping company for below minimum wage. Though it is not much to us, that wage is much higher than he can earn in his home country.
Now suppose that a local carpenter needs an assistant whom he would pay $1520 an hour. Juan’s greatest value in the economy would then be to work as the carpenter’s assistant. This is clear because the local carpenter’s willingness to pay him $15 or more an hour shows that people in the community value at that amount the carpentry Juan might do each hour. For Juan’s manual labor, by contrast, people are willing to pay only $6 or $7 an hour. Juan is worth more in the economy as a carpenter.
Nevertheless, when immigration is illegal Juan might well choose to do the less-valuable work because he is afraid of being deported. Perhaps the man who smuggled him in has an agreement with the head of the landscaping company and Juan worries that if he moves to a better job the smuggler might report him. Or he might worry that working as a carpenter’s assistant would put him at risk of being turned in by other carpenters who would resent his competition. Or the state might require a license for carpenter’s assistants, for which only legal immigrants may apply.
For these kinds of reasons illegal immigrants often hold jobs in which their work is less valuable than elsewhere. All such cases represent a clear loss to society because even though the illegal immigrants’ willingness to work for below minimum wage keeps wages and costs down in the markets for lower-skilled labor, their talents are sadly wasted. They would be better used providing services that people in the community value more.
In answer to Blake, then, yes, it may be that illegal immigration helps to reduce the damage done by minimum-wage laws and minimum-wage increases. But no, it is incorrect to think that illegal immigration as such is beneficial for the economy. It is better than no immigration at all, but compared to free immigration, it is worse.