The United States has one of the lowest minimum wages of the world's wealthy nations. It may come as no surprise, then, that minimum wage hikes are popular with voters: An August 2016 Pew Research Center survey, for instance, found that 58 percent of Americans supported doubling the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $15, with 41 percent opposed.
But Republicans in Congress have shown little interest in increasing the minimum wage in recent years. As a result, most minimum wage action now happens at the state level: In 2018 alone, minimum wage hikes went into effect in at least 18 states.
But even at the state level, politicians aren't particularly responsive to what voters want when it comes to the minimum wage. That's been underscored in new research, published this month in the American Journal of Political Science, showing that in every single state in the union, minimum wages are set at levels well below what state residents say they prefer.
"On average, state minimum wages are set at a level approximately two dollars per hour lower than the wage state residents would prefer," the researchers found.
Arriving at this conclusion was fairly straightforward: In a nationally representative survey, the researchers told state residents what the minimum wage in their state was, and followed up with an open-ended question asking what respondents thought the minimum wage should be.
The researchers characterize the resulting gap as a policy bias: the disconnect between what voters prefer and what legislators enact. In all 50 states, this bias runs in the same direction: toward policy that is more conservative than what the public wants. This finding reinforces the results of a number of other studies published this year, which show that lawmakers - Democratic and Republican alike - govern more conservatively than what their constituents desire.
One chief reason for this disconnect: Research shows that state and federal lawmakers believe that the public is more conservative than it actually is. In part, that's due to the influence of corporate lobbyists and donors, who tend to run more conservative than the general population and who have much more access to lawmakers than the average citizen. A study published this summer, for instance, found that congressional staffers believed that correspondence from business interests was more representative of public opinion than letters from average constituents.
The new minimum wage study also found that the gap between voter preferences and actual minimum wage policy was smaller in states that allow citizens to put legislation on the ballot. "The magnitude of the conservative bias is $0.90 less in states with access to direct democracy, compared to a baseline of $2.56 in the rest of the states," the study found.
If you give voters the tools to raise the minimum wage themselves, in other words, they'll gladly do it.
The concern with direct legislation via ballot measure is that voters aren't experts, and they may end up enacting policies that end up being suboptimal or even harmful in the long run. Of course, the average lawmaker isn't an expert either, and there's no shortage of examples of politicians enacting laws that were eventually repealed or overturned once their full consequences became apparent.
In the case of the minimum wage, at least, the latest research suggests that increases, particularly incremental ones, benefit the people they're intended to benefit while having little in the way of collateral harm. That should be encouraging news for voters looking to change minimum wage laws in their states.
This article was written by Christopher Ingraham, a reporter for The Washington Post.