The strongest labor market in a generation has resulted in particularly large gains among low-wage and disadvantaged workers. From 1979 to 1993, the real wages of low-wage workers fell sharply. Recently, however, low-wage workers have experienced large increases in real wages: For low-wage men, wages are up since 1996 by 5.7 percent after inflation. And for low-wage women, real wages have risen 6.1 percent.
These strong wage gains have been accompanied by a steep decline in unemployment for low-skilled workers. In 1993, 11.1 percent of workers without a high school degree were unemployed; today that rate has fallen to 7.2 percent. Among high school graduates (with no college), the rate has fallen from 6.6 to 3.9 percent. Low-wage workers are thus gaining both by working more and by earning more for every hour that they work.
The effects of a strong economy have been reinforced by successful policies designed to make work pay. Expansions in the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) since 1993 are supplementing the incomes of low-wage working parents. The EITC is one of our most successful programs for fighting poverty and encouraging work:
- Lifts more than 4 million Americans out of poverty. The EITC lifted 4.3 million Americans out of poverty in 1997 -- more than double the number in 1993.
- Dramatically reduces child poverty. In 1997, the EITC reduced the number of children living in poverty by 2.2 million. This report finds that over half of the decline in child poverty between 1993 and 1997 can be explained by changes in taxes, most importantly the EITC.
- Encourages work among single women with children. In 1992, 73.7 percent of single women with children were in the labor force. In 1997, 84.2 percent of such women were in the labor force. The percentage of single women with children who received welfare and did not work has been cut by more than half -- from 19.3 percent in 1992 to 8.3 percent in 1997.[Based on CPS tabs by Liebman.] Research studies suggest that the increase in labor force participation among single mothers is strongly linked to the expansion in the EITC.
Increases in the minimum wage have been important in raising the earnings of low-wage workers. Empirical research suggests that recent minimum wage increases have had little or no adverse effect on employment.
The combined effects of the minimum wage and the EITC have dramatically increased the returns to work for families with children. Between 1993 and 1997, families with one child and one earner who worked full-time at the minimum wage (i.e., $4.72 in 1993 and $5.15 in 1997, in 1997 dollars) experienced a 14 percent -- $1,402 -- increase in their income, after inflation, just because of these two policies alone. Similar families with two children experienced a 27 percent -- $2,761 -- increase in their income. (author abstract)