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Columbia Missourian

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Watch out for the misinterpretation of statistics

By Robert Blake
February 10, 2012 | 1:44 p.m. CST

J. Karl Miller’s opinion piece in the Feb. 9 edition of the Columbia Missourian opposing an increase in the minimum wage is an excellent example of using statistics to obfuscate and mislead. Miller labels as false Robert Reich’s conclusion that 40% of minimum wage workers are the sole source of income for their families. One expects Miller to then cite an alternative figure to support his claim that Reich is wrong. But he does no such thing. Instead, he throws a bunch of statistics at us that in no way refute Reich’s figure.

Miller notes that in 2005 1.9 million Americans earned minimum wage, which constituted only 2.5% of all hourly wage workers and 1.5% of all U.S. employees. But he doesn't tell us what percentage of these 1.9 million workers are the sole source of their family income. He then proceeds to claim that "more than half of those earning minimum wage are between 16 and 24 and living at home." Certainly at a time of economic hardship when many middle-aged workers are unemployed, a proportion of these young minimum wage workers are the sole family breadwinners. What is that proportion? Miller is silent.

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According to Miller, 2.8 percent of minimum wage workers were single parents, and 1.2 percent were adult heads of households with annual incomes of less than $10,000. Of course, $10,000 is less than half the income level that defines poverty for a family of four. What percentage of minimum wage workers are adult heads of households with poverty level incomes? Again, Miller is silent. The fact that any adult worker in the U.S. has a family income less than $10,000 is a strong indictment of our wage system and a compelling argument for increasing the minimum wage on the basis of fairness and decency.

Why does Miller dance around Reich’s figure of 40% with irrelevant statistics? If Reich’s figure is wrong, why doesn’t Miller provide the correct one?

Miller repeats the well-worn argument that raising the minimum wage results in job loss. However, numerous studies have documented that any jobs lost are more than compensated by job creation, stimulated by increased purchasing power because of more money in the pockets of people who spend it. Miller seems to blame a more-than-doubling of the teenager unemployment rate between 2006 and 2009 on a raise in the minimum wage. Weren't there serious economic developments during this time completely unrelated to the minimum wage that increased unemployment for all?

Miller identifies four options employers have when faced with an increase in the minimum wage, all of which are negative. But he neglects other options that make a lot of sense to many of us. Businesses could commit some of the more than two trillion dollars that they are collectively hoarding to fund the increase. This would have the benefit of stimulating the economy. Corporate executives could devote a part of their exorbitant compensation to pay their lowest income workers. After all, many minimum wage workers are employed by huge corporations, whose executives "make" more in a day than the workers receive in a year.

As Miller asserts, Missourians should "research" the issues relating to raising the minimum wage. We need to be particularly careful about interpreting statistics that are abused for partisan purposes.

Robert Blake is a Columbia resident.