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Local View: How about a federal minimum-median-maximum wage?

From the column: "Different states have different costs of living, so $15-an-hour has different buying power across the country."

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The $15 minimum wage has reentered our national discussion. Unfortunately, our country’s economic diversity raises doubts about the very concept of a minimum wage nationwide.

Or statewide. Or even countywide, really.

Different states have different costs of living, so $15-an-hour has different buying power across the country. In New York, $15 gets you about as far as $18 in Minnesota, and $20 in South Dakota.

This geographic diversity means that a “minimum” wage in the Northeast would feel a lot less “minimum” in the Midwest, while a “minimum” wage in the South would be sub-minimal on the West Coast. These simple facts raise questions about whether a single federal wage can serve as a “minimum” wage at all.

The state level isn’t much better — just as states differ, so do counties. In Minnesota, a two-adult, two-child household in Wadena County would need 40% more money to meet the same needs in Carver County, for example, as can be determined by using the Economic Policy Institute’s online Family Budget Calculator.


Again, how would a government set a meaningful “minimum” wage, even across just one state? A wage tuned to the economies and costs of living in most counties would be inadequate for a metro area — or even regional hubs.

The logic extends to the county level, too. Maybe that’s unsurprising to Northlanders living in St. Louis County, which is bigger than some U.S. states. The costs of living vary widely from Duluth to Virginia and from Virginia to Orr. How is a government supposed to set a “minimum” wage for a cook in Duluth and a cook in Cook, a town less than one-one hundredth the size and almost 100 miles away?

If we can’t find a single “minimum” wage across a county, we can’t find one across a state, let alone the nation.

Of course, proponents of the so-called “minimum” wage would say it’s best to just “pick from the middle” or calculate some sort of average. Never mind that “picking from the middle” creates both kinds of problems at the same time: a statewide “average” wage would be too low to truly help workers in the Twin Cities but simultaneously far from “minimum” near the Canadian border. Nationally, a wage set to the Midwest would be too low for the coasts, but not-so-minimum in much of the South.

Forget a “minimum” wage; even a “median” wage has problems.

But wouldn’t a “median-minimum” wage be better than nothing? Well, I doubt the owner of any small business would agree, especially in a small town and especially during a pandemic.

Regardless, the question is moot: the administration of President Joe Biden is not advocating a wage “from the middle” at all. His $15-an-hour is higher than the current minimum wage in every state — every single state! — including the 24 that already have tuned their wages to their own economies and costs of living above the federal level.

In 47 of our 50 states, $15-per-hour is actually higher than the “living wage,” a fuzzy idea about the wage necessary to support an entire household with a single worker. This is not a starting wage for high-school kids in South Dakota. Or Orr. Or Virginia — the state or the city. Or most places, really.


A hefty $15 per hour is neither a “minimum” nor a “median” wage. At the federal, state, or county level, any “median-minimum” is bad policy to the maximum.

P. A. Jensen of Duluth writes about politics, sports, and rural life at RuralityCheck.com. He wrote this for the News Tribune.

Phil Jensen.jpg
P.A. Jensen

Related Topics: JOE BIDEN
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