Paid work is never enough: we need to pay attention to the quality as well as the quantity of jobs created

Getting people into employment will not on its own ensure decent living standards and reduce poverty, finds Peter Taylor-Gooby. His research shows that, while higher employment is associated with lower poverty, other factors are more important. The most important factor in reducing poverty levels across the countries looked at was the strength of contractual rights, and other policies, such as access to child care, policies to reduce discrimination against women were also significant.

Most people think paid work is the royal road to a better life for people of working age. The value of work is at the centre of policy thinking across the board, from Labour’s Compulsory Jobs Guarantee to UKIP’s commitment to ‘enroll unemployed welfare claimants onto community schemes or retraining workfare programmes’. Ian Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit puts work ‘at the centre of our welfare system’. The EU’s 2020 Growth Strategy ‘is about more jobs and better lives.’ And so on.

The idea that getting people into work will solve the problem of achieving decent living standards for those of working age was given extra impetus as unemployment rose from about 5 to over 8 per cent between 2008 and 2012, paralleled with a rise in working-age poverty. Now unemployment is falling back towards pre-crisis levels but, as IFS analysis shows, poverty among working age adults is failing to respond. The poor quality of many of the new jobs indicates short-comings in the case for paid work as the foundation of welfare.

Most of those in poverty live in working households. Among families the proportion in households with at least one member in work rose from 50 to 68 per cent between 1996 and 2013 according to the DWP’s Households Below Average Incomes statistics. The job market started to recover from its low point in 2012 but many of the jobs on offer are far from satisfactory. The number of part-time workers rose from 7.2 million to 8.2 million between the recession in 2008 and 2014, the numbers of involuntary part-timers from 0.7 to 1.7 million and the number of temporary workers from 1.4 to 1.7 million. The Labour Force survey shows a doubling of zero-hour contracts between 2007 and 2013 to 300,000.

These statistics suggest that we need to pay attention to the quality as well as the quantity of jobs created. Our new research examines factors affecting employment and poverty across 17 European countries for the period of prosperity and growth between 2001 and 2007. This is the time when the sun shone, the most favourable period in recent history for the work = welfare = decent living standards project. The research shows that, even at this time, new welfare was much more successful at getting people into work than at reducing poverty.

Employment rates rose across Europe, especially for women. However, far from declining, poverty rates also increased (by the standard EU 60 per cent of median income measure) from 18 to 18.6 per cent between 2001 and 2007 in the UK, and also in other successful economies such as Germany (11 to 15.2 per cent), Sweden (9 to 11.5 per cent) or Poland (16 to 17.3 per cent). One explanation is to do with access to paid work. Governments need to make sure that even more people move into work. This is the logic that lies behind the EU’s Employment Strategy and Horizon 2020 programme and behind national work-centred policies such as Universal Credit. Then the great recession swept everyone towards work at any price policies, redoubling the stress on paid work.

These were the good times, when, if ever, the link between work and decent incomes should be strongest. Higher employment is associated with lower poverty, but the analysis shows that, even during this period, other factors were more important. In fact the most important factor in reducing poverty levels across the countries was the strength of contractual rights. Other policies such as access to child care, policies to reduce discrimination against women were also significant.

The level of employment plays a role in ensuring decent living standards, but one that is less powerful than that of employment rights. The suggestion is that while employment is probably a good thing, if we want people to be better off, we also need to make sure that the quality of jobs is adequate. The best way to ensure that is to strengthen contractual rights against dismissal and to promote trade union membership. Recent trends in policy to weaken employment protection, to undermine the role of trade unions and to introduce high fees for access to employment tribunals move us in entirely the wrong direction. Shovelling people into low-paid jobs is all the fashion, but it is not the answer to the problem of poverty among those of working age.

For more, see “Can ‘New Welfare’ Address Poverty Through More And Better Jobs?” by Peter Taylor-Gooby, Julia M. Gumy and Adeline Otto.

About the Author

Peter Taylor-Gooby is Research Professor of Social Policy at the University of Kent’s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research. He chaired the British Academy New Paradigms in Public Policy Programme (2010/2011) and is Chair of the REF Social Work and Social Policy and Administration panel 2011-15, a Fellow of the British Academy, a Founding Academician at the Academy of Social Sciences and, previously, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Sociology and Social Policy Section.
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Labour needs policies that end low paid and low skilled work

By Tony Burke | Published: October 27, 2014

The UK has too many poorly performing workplaces, according to a new report

On October 23, the Smith Institute launched a report entitled ‘Making work better: an agenda for government‘ – an independent inquiry into the world of work by Ed Sweeney.

Sweeney of course is the former chair of the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS), former deputy general secretary of Unite and former general secretary of the finance union Unifi, now part of Unite.

The report, which runs to over 100 pages, is the product of a nine month inquiry involving research, interviews, discussion events around the UK as well as opinion polling.

It sets out the argument that the UK has too many poorly performing workplaces, with poor treatment of workers who Sweeney’s report states are “underpaid, over-worked and ignored”.

The report also argues that the UK has a “long tail of broken workplaces” which are holding back the recovery and costing the country billions in lost income and in the payment of welfare benefits to those out of work but also to those workers eking out a living in low paid, precarious and agency work.

The report has been welcomed by Labour, the TUC and EEF (the manufacturing employers’ organisation), who were all represented at the report’s launch: shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna for Labour; general secretary Frances O’Grady for the TUC and Judith Hogarth, head Of employment policy of the EEF

Sweeney’s report highlights the UK’s poor performance on a range of indicators, including:

poor productivity, with the USA, France and Germany being 30 per cent more productive than the UK;
a skills shortage and mismatch, with half of employees interviewed saying that their jobs do not make full use of their skills and abilities;
job insecurity with over half of employees worried about loss of employment or job status – the Office of National Statistics now estimates there are 1.4 million zero-hour contract workers;
stagnating pay levels – since 2004 wages for workers on the median wage or less have stagnated or fallen in real terms and since 2010 median wages have fallen by more that 6 per cent in real terms;
and 50 of workers interviewed said they faced unreasonable treatment, while 40 per cent faced disrespect from employers.

The report also recommends that the government should amend the Information & Consultation Regulations to giver workers a stronger voice and bring the UK into line with other EU countries.

The ICE Regulations are barely used by unions to establish these structures as they are dauntingly complex and unions usually face open hostility from some of the worst employers who do not wish to hear the views of their workers, never mind consult with them.

The report makes a series of important recommendations, including a new mandate for the Low Pay Commission to increase the national minimum wage towards 60 per cent of the median wage; a target for government of lift one million workers to the living wage by 2020 and, interestingly, a requirement on the government to promote the positive role trade unions play in achieving fair pay and giving ACAS the power to promote collective bargaining and good employment relations.

At the launch, the issue of collective bargaining was a major talking point, with a number of speakers and questioners (including academics and trade unions) arguing strongly that the restoration of widespread collective bargaining would do much to restore decent work and pay equality.

Speakers pointed out that this was always ACAS’s role (it was the Major government who scrapped ACAS’s role in promoting collective bargaining) and it would require significant political and financial support.

On the role of trade unions, Chuka Umunna said in his remarks:

“The report is right to highlight that trade unions have an important role to play here in boosting training, pay and conditions for their members and helping Britain win that race to the top.

“At a time of rapid global economic change and a cost of living crisis at home, it is vital that the UK continues to have strong and modern trade unions as a genuine voice fighting against discrimination and abuse.”

Building on Ed Sweeney’s report, Chuka Umunna also announced the setting up a further review of Labour’s policies in regard to the world of work, to be lead by John Monks, former head of the TUC and the ETUC, Douglas McCormick, former MD of Atkins UK Rail and Alison Downie, head of the Employment Department at Goodman Derrick LLP.

Frances O’Grady hit the nail on the head at the launch when she said:

“With so many facing stagnant pay and too many new jobs made insecure through zero-hours contracts, agency working or low value self employment, we won’t fix the economy without fixing the workplace.”

Labour has to recognise that in order to win the election and win back working people, there is crying a need to promote clear policies to end low paid and low skilled work; but also to end exploitation, firmly regulate precarious work and create decent employment in decent workplaces.

Tony Burke is assistant general secretary of Unite
http://leftfootforward.org/2014/10/labour-needs-policies-that-end-low-paid-and-low-skilled-work/#more-89607

Increase in number of people on low pay

Increase in number of people on low pay
By Left Foot Forward | Published: November 3, 2014

The number of people on low pay has risen by 147,000 to 5.3 million in the last year, according to a study by KPMG.

Childcare vouchersjThe research indicates that 22 per cent of employees are now earning less than the Living Wage – up from 21 per cent last year.

According to the data, part-time, female and young workers are the most likely to be earning a wage that fails to provide a decent standard of living.

The research, conducted by Markit for KPMG, also found that the proportion of people earning less than £7.65 per hour (£8.80 in London) is higher amongst part-time workers. More than 4 in 10 part-time workers take home less than the Living Wage, compared to 13 percent of full-time employees.

There are also more part-time roles paying less than the Living Wage (2.98 million) than full-time jobs (2.29 million), despite making up less than a third of all UK jobs.

The research revealed that during October of this year almost three times as many people who earned less than the Living Wage (29 per cent) reported that their household finances had worsened over the month, compared to just 10 per cent who saw an improvement. Meanwhile, twice as many people who earn below the Living Wage (18 per cent) reported an increase in their need to borrow, compared to 9 per cent who saw a reduction.

The financial outlook for many remains bleak. Five per cent of those earning less than the Living Wage said they expected to see their household finances worsen between now and November 2015. Almost a quarter (22 per cent) also reported fears over job security.

Commenting on the research, head of Living Wage at KPMG Mike Kelly said:

“Although there are almost 1,000 organisations pledged to pay a Living Wage, far too many UK employees are stuck in the spiral of low pay.

“With the cost of living still high the squeeze on household finances remains acute, meaning that the reality for many is that they are forced to live hand to mouth. Inflation may be easing, but unless wages rise we will continue to see huge swathes of people caught between the desire to contribute to society and the inability to afford to do so.

“For some time it was easy for businesses to hide behind the argument that increased wages hit their bottom line, but there is ample evidence to suggest the opposite – in the shape of higher retention and higher productivity. It may not be possible for every business, but it is certainly not impossible to explore the feasibility of paying a Living Wage.”

http://leftfootforward.org/2014/11/increase-in-number-of-people-on-low-pay/

Why did Britain’s political class buy into the Tories’ economic fairytale?

Ha-Joon Chang
Falling wages, savage cuts and sham employment expose the recovery as bogus. Without a new vision we’re heading for social conflict

Sunday 19 October 2014 17.46 BST

The UK economy has been in difficulty since the 2008 financial crisis. Tough spending decisions have been needed to put it on the path to recovery because of the huge budget deficit left behind by the last irresponsible Labour government, showering its supporters with social benefit spending. Thanks to the coalition holding its nerve amid the clamour against cuts, the economy has finally recovered. True, wages have yet to make up the lost ground, but it is at least a “job-rich” recovery, allowing people to stand on their own feet rather than relying on state handouts.

That is the Conservative party’s narrative on the UK economy, and a large proportion of the British voting public has bought into it. They say they trust the Conservatives more than Labour by a big margin when it comes to economic management. And it’s not just the voting public. Even the Labour party has come to subscribe to this narrative and tried to match, if not outdo, the Conservatives in pledging continued austerity. The trouble is that when you hold it up to the light this narrative is so full of holes it looks like a piece of Swiss cheese.

First, let’s look at the origins of the deficit. Contrary to the Conservative portrayal of it as a spendthrift party, Labour kept the budget in balance averaged over its first six years in office between 1997 and 2002. Between 2003 and 2007 the deficit rose, but at 3.2% of GDP a year it was manageable.

More importantly, this rise in the deficit between 2003 and 2007 was not due to increased welfare spending. According to data from the Office for National Statistics, social benefit spending as a proportion of GDP was more or less constant at about 9.5% of GDP a year during this period. The dramatic climb in budget deficit from there to the average of 10.7% in 2009-2010 was mostly a consequence of the recession caused by the financial crisis.

First, the recession reduced government revenue by the equivalent of 2.4% of GDP – from 42.1% to 39.7% – between 2008 and 2009-10. Second, it raised social spending (social benefit plus health spending). Economic downturn automatically increases spending on many social benefits, such as unemployment benefit and income support, but it also increases spending on things like disability benefit and healthcare, as increased unemployment and poverty lead to more physical and mental health problems. In 2009-10, at the height of the recession, UK public social spending rose by the equivalent of 3.2% of GDP compared with its 2008 level (from 21.8% to 24%).
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When you add together the recession-triggered fall in tax revenue and rise in social spending, they amount to 5.6% of GDP – almost the same as the rise in the deficit between 2008 and 2009-10 (5.7% of GDP). Even though some of the rise in social spending was due to factors other than the recession, such as an ageing population, it would be safe to say that much of the rise in deficit can be explained by the recession itself, rather than Labour’s economic mismanagement.

When faced with this, supporters of the Tory narrative would say, “OK, but however it was caused, we had to control the deficit because we can’t live beyond our means and accumulate debt”. This is a pre-modern, quasi-religious view of debt. Whether debt is a bad thing or not depends on what the money is used for. After all, the coalition has made students run up huge debts for their university education on the grounds that their heightened earning power will make them better off even after they pay back their loans.

The same reasoning should be applied to government debt. For example, when private sector demand collapses, as in the 2008 crisis, the government “living beyond its means” in the short run may actually reduce public debt faster in the long run, by speeding up economic recovery and thereby more quickly raising tax revenues and lowering social spending. If the increased government debt is accounted for by spending on projects that raise productivity – infrastructure, R&D, training and early learning programmes for disadvantaged children – the reduction in public debt in the long run will be even larger.

Against this, the advocates of the Conservative narrative may retort that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and that the recovery is the best proof that the government’s economic strategy has worked. But has the UK economy really fully recovered? We keep hearing that national income is higher than at the pre-crisis peak of the first quarter of 2008. However, in the meantime the population has grown by 3.5 million (from 60.5 million to 64 million), and in per capita terms UK income is still 3.4% less than it was six years ago. And this is even before we talk about the highly uneven nature of the recovery, in which real wages have fallen by 10% while people at the top have increased their shares of wealth.

But can we not at least say that the recovery has been “jobs-rich”, creating 1.8m positions between 2011 and 2014? The trouble is that, apart from the fact that the current unemployment rate of 6% is nothing to be proud of, many of the newly created jobs are of very poor quality.

The ranks of workers in “time-related underemployment”, doing fewer hours than they wish due to a lack of availability of work – have swollen dramatically. Between 1999 and 2006, only about 1.9% of workers were in such a position; by 2012-13 the figure was 8%.

Then there is the extraordinary increase in self-employment. Its share of total employment, whose historical norm (1984-2007) was 12.6%, now stands at an unprecedented 15%. With no evidence of a sudden burst of entrepreneurial energy among Britons, we may conclude that many are in self-employment out of necessity or even desperation. Even though surveys show that most newly self-employed people say it is their preference, the fact that these workers have experienced a far greater collapse in earnings than employees – 20% against 6% between 2006-07 and 2011-12, according to the Resolution Foundation – suggests that they have few alternatives, not that they are budding entrepreneurs going places.

So, in between the additional people in underemployment (6.1% of employment) and the precarious newly self-employed (2.4%), 8.5% of British people in work (or 2.6 million people) are in jobs that do not fully utilise their abilities – call that semi-unemployment, if you will.

The success of the Conservative economic narrative has allowed the coalition to pursue a destructive and unfair economic strategy, which has generated only a bogus recovery largely based on government-fuelled asset bubbles in real estate and finance, with stagnant productivity, falling wages, millions of people in precarious jobs, and savage welfare cuts.

The country is in desperate need of a counter narrative that shifts the terms of debate. A government budget should be understood not just in terms of bookkeeping but also of demand management, national cohesion and productivity growth. Jobs and wages should not be seen simply as a matter of people being “worth” (or not) what they get, but of better utilising human potential and of providing decent and dignified livelihoods. Ways have to be found to generate economic growth based on rising productivity rather than the continuous blowing of asset bubbles.

Without a new economic vision incorporating these dimensions, Britain will continue on its path of stagnation, financial instability and social conflict.

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/19/britain-political-class-tories-economic-fairytale?CMP=fb_gu

Why do wages continue to stagnate in the UK as unemployment falls?

Geraint Johnes
The ONS released figures this week showing expanding employment while wages continue to stagnate. What is behind this puzzling picture? Geraint Johnes writes that the slack that has remained in the labour market, in the form of the underemployed and self-employed, offers one explanation for sluggish wage performance.

The latest labour market statistics show numbers in employment rising by 150,000 during the second quarter of this year while wages, rising at an annual rate of just 0.4 per cent, well below the rate of increase in prices, have continued to stagnate. The employment statistics paint a healthy picture while the data on earnings suggest all is not well. That might look like a paradox. It isn’t – it’s the fall in real wages that has allowed employers to hire more workers. But nonetheless there are aspects of the labour market that have puzzled economists for some time.

On the basis of past experience, one might have expected wage pressures to be growing at this stage in a recovery. Unemployment has fallen sharply over the last year – having been stubbornly static for a long time, it fell from 7.8 per cent in the second quarter of last year to 6.4 per cent in the space of just twelve months. In normal times, that would indicate a significant tightening of the labour market, and would lead to employers playing leapfrog with wages in order to attract a limited supply of workers.

But these haven’t been normal times. They may become more normal soon, but they aren’t normal yet. There has remained considerable slack in the economy. Data that we have published at Lancaster University’s Work Foundation suggest that the recession led to many people in work working fewer hours than they wanted to – that is, it led to a marked increase in underemployment. While these people are employed, they form an army of workers who could readily switch from part-time to full-time work as the demand for labour increases. Indeed, in the latest statistics, we are seeing that begin to happen. Over the second quarter of this year, employment rose by 0.5 per cent, but the number of hours worked increased by twice as much. And over the same period, the number of employees in part-time employment actually declined by some 19,000, while the number in full-time employment grew rapidly.

Another form that labour market slack has taken in recent years, rather unusually, is self-employment. Numbers of workers in this category have increased rapidly, and now over 15 per cent of all those in work in the UK are self-employed. Little is known about these new self-employed workers. Many are likely to have chosen self-employment whatever the weather, but it seems as though some, at least, have chosen it in the absence of other, more attractive, alternatives. Around a quarter of the new generation of self-employed workers would prefer not to be self-employed – a far higher proportion than has been observed in the past. Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that the real earnings of the typical self-employed worker have fallen faster than those of employees. But the latest data suggest that the increase in self-employment is now starting to slow – another sign that the labour market is starting to return to normal.

The slack that has remained in the labour market offers one explanation for sluggish wage performance. Another important factor has been the failure of labour productivity to pick up in the aftermath of recession. There is a plethora of reasons underpinning this so-called productivity puzzle, and we have explored these at length at a recent event at the Work Foundation.There are, however, encouraging signs. Business investment, which had been stagnant since the onset of recession, has made a spectacular recovery in the last two quarters for which data are available; in the first quarter of this year, it stood about 10 per cent higher than a year earlier. That is a quite remarkable recovery. Such investment in capital should help increase labour productivity. Once growth in labour productivity is resumed, real wages will start to rise. Just how quickly that comes about remains to be seen.

About the Author

Geraint JohnesGeraint Johnes is Director of The Work Foundation and Professor of Economics at Lancaster University.

http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/wages-stagnate-unemployment-falls/

In work, but poor: barriers to sustainable growth and the need for a living wage

While the UK has returned to growth, many workers continue to suffer economic hardship as real incomes have yet to recover. This means that, just as in the past, the UK economy is relying on an unsustainable growth model where workers spending more than they earn to support the economy. Setting the UK on a sustainable path and reversing the growth of in-work poverty requires policies to raise real wages, writes David Spencer

Rejoice. The UK economy is back to where it was before the crisis. The depression is over and sunny economic uplands lie in the future. Feel good, damn it, the economy is growing again. But there is a reason why the positive growth statistics are treated sceptically. That reason relates to the fact that real incomes have fallen in the UK. Despite the restoration of growth, workers in the UK have continued to suffer cuts in their real pay. One of the arguments for growth is that it raises real incomes – in the UK at least, the reverse is proving to be true. The economy has achieved growth, while many millions of workers have suffered increasing economic hardship with little prospect of improvement.

From a growth perspective, the grim facts of the recovery provide cause for concern. The UK economy has only been able to grow by workers spending beyond their means. Workers have run down savings and borrowed more to increase their consumption and this has driven growth. But workers can only go on behaving like this for so long. Without a rise in real pay, the spending must come to an end and with it the recovery. 

There is no sign yet of net exports recovering to support consumption and any rises in business investment will need to continually confound expectations to offset the further fiscal tightening to come. Again as in the past the UK economy is relying on workers spending more than they earn to support the economy. This is a growth model that cannot be sustained and will ultimately end in disaster.

Even the most ardent backers of the governments current policy stance must harbour some concerns about the prospects for growth in the economy. Lower real wages may help firms keep a lid on their costs but from the perspective of raising demand on a sustainable basis they place restrictions on the ability of firms to grow output. Demand side barriers will bite in the end and terminate the recovery.

But beyond growth there are deeper issues here relating to work and its relation to poverty. Work has long been heralded as the best form of welfare and the route to economic success. This view – summed up in the mantra ‘work always pays’ – has been exposed as a miserable lie. Now it seems that work for many is no escape from poverty. Working hard for a living often means struggling to keep ones head above water.

Evidence shows that in-work poverty is on the rise in the UK. Among working age adults in low income households, the number in working families has been growing and is now greater than the number in workless families. It used to be that worklessness was the prime determinant of poverty. Now it is more likely to be low waged work.

How did we get into this situation? The underlying causes are complex and multifaceted. They include the decline of unions, the deregulation of the labour market, an inadequate training system and the rise of the service sector at the expense of manufacturing. The UK has lacked the necessary modernising forces that would have otherwise led it towards a high wage economy. Instead, it has evolved an institutional structure that has favoured and entrenched low wages.

What can be done? In the short term, policies to raise real wages in the UK would help not only to sustain the recovery if that is the concern but also to address the problem of in-work poverty. The national minimum wage, although a welcome development, has not managed to address the problem of low pay and this is where calls for a living wage come in. Raising the minimum wage to the level of the living wage would be a bold but economically sensible step to take. Critics may say that this will lead to unemployment. Yet evidence shows that minimum wage hikes have not had adverse employment effects. Indeed, their effect has been to increase productivity via higher levels of worker morale and to reduce welfare spending.

Longer-term, the UK needs to break its reliance on a low wage growth model. For this, it needs a new industrial strategy that focuses on building things rather than on making money. It needs to invest in new industries via the help of the State. Challenging vested interests particularly in the world of finance and creating a model of sustainable prosperity based not on endless growth but on the promotion of human flourishing remain the ultimate goals. Whether these goals are achievable under current conditions remains a moot point. Yet they are goals that we need to keep in our sights and agitate for.

In the end, the UK cannot afford to pay workers less. Driving real wages down is a recipe for economic stagnation and human misery. For all our sakes, we should seek a rise in real wages. 

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Featured image credit:

About the Author

David Spencer is Professor of Economics and Political Economy at the Leeds University Business School.

Minimum wages: the economics and the politics

Minimum wages are increasingly popular with politicians and the public; even most economists now agree that they have little or no negative effect on employment. Alan Manning discusses this newfound enthusiasm – and the likelihood that it will lead to much higher minimum wages in some parts of the world.

There was a time when the minimum wage was seen as a backwater of labour market policy, an appendix for which the best one could hope would be that it did not cause any problems. But no longer: in many countries, there is now a strong movement to raise minimum wages.

In November last year, Angela Merkel finally announced that Germany would be introducing a minimum wage, replacing or supplementing the current system that sets minima in a small number of lowpaying sectors and collective bargaining that sets minima in some other industries. In May this year, Swiss voters will be asked to vote on the world’s highest minimum wage – 22 Swiss francs an hour (about £15) – with one canton already having voted for that rate in principle though another has rejected it. And in 2011, the free market redoubt of Hong Kong introduced a national minimum wage.

In the United States, President Obama seems to have given up hope of his proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $10 per hour in the face of an impasse in Congress. But he has recently used his executive power to impose a $10.10 minimum wage on the few hundred thousand people who work on federal contracts.

The president is also actively encouraging states and cities to raise their local minimum wages, thus bypassing the obstacles in Washington. Increasing numbers of them are doing so, and some are going further: Seattle’s mayor, for example, proposes a $15 minimum wage. Minimum wages at this level – about 60% of median hourly earnings – are pushing the envelope of what has ever before been attempted with the minimum wage.

The UK is not immune from this newfound enthusiasm for the minimum wage, with all the main political parties seemingly falling over themselves to find some way to inject new vigour into the National Minimum Wage. Last autumn, the business secretary Vince Cable wrote to the Low Pay Commission (LPC), asking it to consider the economic circumstances in which the minimum wage could be increased at a rate above inflation. And the Labour Party has set up a Low Pay Review to consider options.

Not to be outdone, Chancellor George Osborne in January expressed the opinion that the nascent recovery means that the minimum wage can now be increased substantially. Without quite saying it in so many words, he dropped a heavy hint that he thought £7 an hour would be reasonable within 18 months, which would be a 10% increase from the current rate of £6.31.

I was a member of an expert panel convened by the Resolution Foundation and chaired by the LPC’s first chairman George Bain to reinvigorate the National Minimum Wage. Central to our ideas was that the LPC has been very successful in doing a limited thing – setting a minimum wage to tackle extreme low pay. But the wider problem of low pay remains as serious as ever and – in spite of its name – the LPC has never attempted to develop a strategy for this bigger problem. The LPC seems to have convinced itself that the minimum wage could not be pushed much higher without threatening jobs, but the consequence is that we can never learn whether that judgment is correct.

So what explains this widespread enthusiasm for the minimum wage? In my view, both economics and politics are at play.

The economics of minimum wages

A generation ago, the vast majority of economists would have said that a rise in the minimum wage inevitably costs jobs. This has changed, with two strands of research having the biggest impact. In the United States, the work of David Card and Alan Krueger, then both at Princeton University, shattered the cosy consensus and argued that the actual evidence linking the minimum wage to job losses was weak. Although their findings were controversial (and the debates rumble on to the present day), there has been a large shift in the weight of academic opinion.

The other strand of research that has been very influential examined the UK experience, with CEP researchers playing a sizeable role, though not the only one. Some people predicted that the introduction of the National Minimum Wage in 1999 would cause hundreds of thousands of job losses, but this simply did not materialise. Any impact on employment seemed to be tiny and LPC research has reached similar conclusions for subsequent years when the minimum wage rose faster than average earnings. In spite of this accumulating empirical evidence, it is still common to find economists fall ing back on the argument that a minimum wage must cost jobs because demand curves for labour inevitably slope downwards. Faced with a conflict between the evidence and twentieth century economic models, they reject the evidence rather than the theory – not an ideal template for scientific endeavour. But there are, in fact, uncomplicated theoretical reasons why the minimum wage set at modest levels has little or no effect on employment.

First, the increase in total labour costs associated with a given increase in the legal minimum wage is often considerably smaller than the numbers suggest. As the minimum wage rises and work becomes more attractive, labour turnover rates and absenteeism tend to decline. Moreover, the cost associated with losing a job rises; so, arguably, workers are inclined to work a bit harder and need less monitoring. Of course, an employer could voluntarily choose to pay higher wages if net labour costs actually fell, so a reasonable guess here is that these offsetting economies reduce, but do not eliminate, the impact of a rise in wage rates.

Then there’s the gap between employer perception and reality. Individual employers often view a rise in wages with horror, assuming it will drive them out of business. But all too often, they are implicitly assuming that they alone will suffer the cost inflation when it affects their competitors as well. Prices rise a bit and the effect on employment is only through the effect of a fall in sales, which may well be minimal.

But there is a more fundamental reason why there is no evidence of the job losses predicted by standard economic theory. The key assumption – that labour markets are highly competitive – is often wrong. The view of the labour market that underlies ‘Economics 101’ is not one that many people would recognise. For in this hypothetical world, losing a job is no big deal because finding an identical job is no harder than discovering that the local Sainsbury’s is out of milk and going to Tesco instead.

But that is not most people’s experience of labour markets. The reality is that competition for workers is not as strong as many economists would have you believe. An employer who cuts wages will find that most employees are unhappy, but that few will just walk out of the door. So it may make economic sense for employers to pay workers less than the marginal worker adds to revenues. In this more realistic world, a rise in the minimum wage will not necessarily price the marginal worker out of their job.

The politics of minimum wages

Academics might like to think their research has a big influence over public policy, but the driving force behind higher minimum wages is that they are very popular. Many people think there is something very wrong with an economic system in which someone who works hard is still unable to provide an adequate standard of living for themselves and their families. Such views have always been common, but they are much more common after the crisis when living standards are threatened and the link between growth and living standards seems to have been severed.

So in most countries of the world, voters (including right-wing voters) support rises in the minimum wage. In the UK, a poll in January 2014 found 66% favouring a substantial increase in the minimum wage – with majorities among supporters of all main political parties. In the United States, a poll in March 2013 found 71% in favour of raising the minimum wage, including 50% of Republicans. In Switzerland, voters seem to support the record-breaking minimum wage even as it is opposed by their government.

In some places, these political pressures will almost certainly lead to much higher minimum wages than we have seen in recent experience – perhaps to around the 60% of median earnings mark. This is the point at which many economists get nervous that negative effects on employment must surely kick in, but we do not have many studies to know whether these concerns are valid. There are only a few countries around this level currently – Australia and New Zealand (with low current unemployment rates) and France (with a more dysfunctional labour market) – so this is hardly conclusive one way or the other. But it seems likely we may be about to find out.

Note:  This article was originally published in the Spring issue of the Centrepiece magazine and gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics.

About the Author

Alan Manning is professor of economics at LSE and director of CEP’s community research programme. His 2003 book, Monopsony in Motion: Imperfect Competition in Labour Markets (Princeton University Press), explains the theory behind minimum wages; and his 2009 CentrePiece article ‘The UK’s National Minimum Wage’ describes CEP’s role in providing the intellectual context for the policy, advising on its implementation and evaluating its impact.

More than a Minimum: The Resolution Foundation Review of the Future of the National Minimum Wage’, was published in March 2014.