The demographics of minimum wage workers

When the subject of the minimum wage does come up, we are told of all the people who try to support their families on such low wages.  Just recently, McDonald’s was criticized for publishing a budget chart for their employees that included a second job.  What isn’t mentioned by the critics of the minimum wage amount is that minimum wage jobs aren’t meant to be careers nor intended to be able to feed and house a family of four comfortably.  They are stepping-stone jobs.  You’re supposed to move on or move up.  But how many people does this really affect?

According to the Department of Labor 75,276,000 people who are paid hourly, only 1,566,000 earn minimum wage, and another 1,984,000 earn less than minimum wage due to legal exemptions such as waitstaff and bartenders, students who are enrolled full-time among others.  This translates to approximately 2% of hourly workers are at minimum wage.

Of minimum wage earners:

  • 64.4% of minimum wage earners work only part-time (42.2% work less than 25 hours per week).
  • 36.3% have less than a high school diploma, 30.3% are high school graduates only, 25% have some college, 4.7% have an Associates degree, 3.3% have a Bachelor’s degree, 0.4% have a Master’s degree, and 0.1% have a Doctoral degree.
  • 77.7% are White, 15% are Black, and 20.2% are Hispanic.
  • 50.6% are aged 16-24, and 20.7% are aged 50 and older.
  • 49.3% are men, and 50.7% are women.
  • 65.2% have never been married, 20.6% are married with their spouse present.

Essentially, the young who are just starting out in the workforce and the elderly who work part time, often to fill their day, make up the bulk of all minimum wage earners (71.3%).  66.3% have only high school degrees or less.  And it seems that only around 1 out of 5 minimum wage earners are adults helping to run a family household (approximately 313,200, or .001% of the total American population).

There will always be low skill, high turnover jobs which pay the minimum.  It’s important to keep in mind that this is not a statement about the worker, it is a statement about the nature of the work.  A medical doctor who works at McDonald’s will earn minimum wage right next to the high school drop out.


  1. I will assume that you know but have simply omitted the percentage of American workers who are not subject to running calculations by the DofL because they are paid 1 penny or more, than minimum wage. For instance, Walmart operations in California have been phasing into their workforce over the last 2 years “more than minimum wage” pay. One state and corp with close to 35k employees, the bulk of which are not tracked because instead of making $8/hr they make $8.07/hr. This is not done by accident and Walmart is not alone in this practice.

    This number when taken nationally is a much larger number of workers than what you have presented above.

    As for “move on or move up”? Well that is a nice comfortable, educated and middle class utopic premise, that has no grounding in reality.

    Your perpetual looking down your nose at the poor and passing judgement, comes off as elitist and aristocratic. This seems to be a chronic theme here and I am wondering why the incessant focus on the underclass trying to make more money and why that’s a bad thing is on your radar to the extent that it is?

    • It might be the case that many corporations pay just over min wage to keep off the radar. Id be happy to entertain any citations youre willing to provide.

      But Walmart, McDonald’s and others promote from within on a regular basis. But even if they didn’t, fry cook or stock boy are not advertised as or expected to be careers. Maybe those were your goals but not for most people.

    • You do know that im not rich by any stretch of the imagination right? I am very pay check to paycheck. I just had my furnace go last week and had no money to fix it. We took cold showers and heated water on the stove for bathing. We shop off clearance racks and can only put 10 or 20 in the gas tank at a time. I have had to not pay one bill just to pay another on mulyiple occasions every year. Before I was married my wife has had to use state programs. And 3 times in our 10 years married weve had to use local toy charities for Christmas. And the car I drive is 11 years old because we cant afford a new one.
      So shove your presumptuous bs up your rear.

      Don’t tell me I look down on the poor. I simply refuse to look at poverty through rose colored glasses.

  2. What reaction were you looking to elicit with this post?

    • I don’t think I was looking for much of a reaction. I think the perception is that millions of workers are only making min wage, and that the majority of them are trying to support families. I was surprised at how few, relatively speaking, are actually making minimum wage. Some posts arent for discussion as much as they are to put little known data or stats out there.

      • Gotcha. My husband works full time and I stay at home raising our 4 children. Once they are all in school I could see myself potentially taking a minimum wage job during Christmas for extra money, or if not during a seasonal time period, then just to take some pressure off of our budget. Those stats also don’t count for the families that are only working those jobs temporarily (i.e. the bread winner is laid off and takes a job at a grocery store while continuing to seek a job in his field). Polls and stats can be SO unreliable (you know that) and they are always controlled depending on the demographic that was surveyed…VERY frustrating.

        • You’re right, stats can be misleading. R. Nash had a good point, which is why I’d like to see data on his claim that major corporations pay their employees slightly above min wage so they don’t show up in those stats, for PR purposes. It makes sense, and I’d like to see.

          Nash, do you have a citation?

  3. John,

    We both know that Nash’s point is more than a wild claim; it’s reality. You know what I do for a living and you know I only make $8.50 an hour. That’s more than minimum wage, but it’s a pathetic paycheck each week nonetheless. There are many, many people working jobs that pay just above minimum wage.

    • T

      I dont think ots a wild claim thats why I want to see the stats on it. Id like to know how many workers are in that situation because it would make a difference to the whole point of my post. Is it a hundred or two thousand, or is it a few million?

  4. John,

    If I could risk our relationship with a serious question, could you tell me, regarding your current situation, which came first: the low paying job or the many things you’re trying to support with it? In my case, my wife and I had a good plan going until I got laid off from my job. Our plan allowed us to weather most of the 2+ years in which I had no more than part time work, if I had work at all. My current job doesn’t provide great pay, but we are able to get on in a manner similar to what we once had before the layoff.

    I ask this because these discussions don’t separate two very different situations experienced by low wage workers. On the one had we have those who, despite their best efforts, were overcome by circumstances resulting from consequences of bad economic policy of our gov’t. On the other, we have people who do no planning whatsoever, or plan based on hope that hadn’t much chance of coming true.

  5. My apologies John. I made an inaccurate assumption. You, on the surface, appear to hold dear in a very similar way a lot of the same beliefs that I have seen held by the folks I mentioned. Coupled with the seemingly aristocratic tone regarding the poor, I was way out of bounds in my original post, and for that I am sorry.

    As for a source or citation, there is no known federal tracking of this information. I saw the pay scales and total numbers on the website about 18 mos. ago or so I think. If I remember correctly the study was done over 2 years and covered 6-8 corporations and 1.9 million workers. I have emailed Christine Owens and am awaiting a response. They take down and revise a lot of their info/PDF’s on a regular basis. I am trying to dig up even the original version. Although it is not going to “prove” why these companies engage in the practice, it will show the pattern. These are also the same companies who send a small army of lobbyists to Capital Hill to fight against the minimum wage standards every year. Remember when the right fought the minimum wage increase under Clinton? They all said it would destroy the economy. Turns out they were wrong. Remember when G. W. Bush raised it? The fiscal conservatives said it was a “jobs killer”. Turns out they were wrong, again.

    If I get anything back from them I will post it.

    • Nash

      I would be willing to concede that if a corp paid their employees 25 cents or less above min wage that at least a partial teason is to keep their name off the “only pays min wage” radar.

      But I would be interested in numbers even if theyre a few years old because it does affect the point I am making in this post. It would have to be revised to reflect it, even if only as a side note.

      It actually didnt even occur to me to consider your point of ‘just over min wage’.

      • A couple of other related points. The military, especially Marines and Soldiers below the rank of E-6 make minimum wage or less. As employees with 90-100 hour work weeks, the average pay for junior enlisted service members is around $4/hr. Yes I understand that this might be considered a unique circumstance. But they are federal employees, they just don’t get the same pay scale or nearly the same benefits that other federal employees receive for infinitely more dangerous work. For example the entry level pay for an Admin. Ass. for the USDA is around 14.75/hr. with a completely different set of benefits (higher quality), a 40/hr a week and a much lower risk of getting shot.
        This ties in with Terrance H’s conversation about the morality of wage ethics.
        If the CEO of Walmart is pulling $53 million a year and the majority of this companies employees are requiring public assistance to financially survive, I think that raises the question of the morality of pay scales. Now those employees are costing any given state 10’s or 100’s of thousands of dollars via Medicare etc each year. There is plenty of data on the cost of these employees to the state from multiple sources if you care to read it. Up until the state of California caught wind of the practice, the newly hired would fill out public assistance forms and their tax forms simultaneously at Walmart.
        Maybe I am way off base here, but I would like to think that the any sort of universal or utilitarian christian ethic would consider this as a regular practice to be, well wrong. Obviously I don’t think that an entry level job that does not require any sort of previous training/schooling, should be paid $25/hr with full benefits, but they should be provided a living wage based on cost of living variances by county or state etc. and basic health insurance.
        My grandparents worked at low paying jobs (with insurance) for almost 20 years each and were able to put 2 kids through college and own their car and home. Now those same jobs pay exponentially less and millions of people can’t do the aforementioned even with public assistance. Shareholders demand ever more and it comes through ever lower wages and usually zero benefits. This, is the primary unfairness of the new capitalism.

  6. Absolutely. The nature of the work and the market. Very few people have enough experience to perform brain surgery. That lack of supply warrants higher prices, as long as there is demand. On the other hand, almost everyone can cook or clean at a McDonald’s.

    The problem with the problem people have with low wages is that it doesn’t take into account the fact that almost no one will spend their entire lives being unable to earn more than a minimum wage job offers.

    Jeff Bezos, for example. The Amazon founder used to work at McDonald’s. “Poor guy”?

  7. Conservative2Cents,

    Your point is partially valid, but supply & demand doesn’t always dictate wages. I get paid $8.50-an-hour to do a job that few people will do. There is always a shortage in my field, private home care.

    • T’s situation has always puzzled me. As a home care provider for special needs or the invalid elderly the pay is surprisingly low. The people who cared for my grandmother only mafe $13 an hour and had to do everything. Clean the house, bathe, laundry, bathroom stuff… How could responsibilities like that pay so low? A human being’s well being is in your hands.

    • My wife also did that work at one point for 8 months to a year or so and I couldnt believe it didnt pay almost double.

  8. T’s situation may have to do with the nature of the work, more than supply and demand. In the case of in home care, you are only serving one or a few customers at a time, for a long time.

    A sports star provides entertainment for a very short period of time, but to millions of “customers”.

    We can’t pay people for the importance of their work. In home care is very important, just not as scalable as other, less important, work (playing hoops, for example).

    In any job, there’s only so much money to be paid. When you’re taking care of a single customer who is unable to do even the minimum to take care of themselves, how much money could they possibly be expected to pay?

  9. Well, I do get paid by the government so perhaps that explains it. But it occurs to me that our priorities are all screwed up in this country. I can understand the economic reasons for why a maid is paid so much less than a basketball player, but I can’t understand the moral reasons.

    • My advice: Don’t mix morals with money.

      You can get rich robbing banks. Or, you can take care of the elderly for 8 and a little per hour.

      The only morality involved with acquiring money is how you get it. Do decent things to get money. That’s it.

      How should we pay virtuous people? How can we? How about priests and pastors? You know, those who “lie while telling fairy tales”? See? Who decides who’s virtuous, and to what degree they are? Money simply cannot reward virtue.

      If, however, you have a family, and $8 isn’t enough to take care of them, it’s your moral obligation to become able to earn more.

      Don’t get me wrong, Terrance. This is not a shot at you. I’ve read your posts. I know a little about where you’ve come from. You’re doing good. And you’ll earn more later, doing decent work.

      Don’t give a second thought to why some get paid more than others, unless you’re trying to earn more. Then, do what the decent higher earners do.

  10. Conservative2Cents,

    I appreciate your thoughts, but Nash made a good point that I think you’re overlooking.

    If the CEO of Walmart is pulling $53 million a year and the majority of this companies employees are requiring public assistance to financially survive, I think that raises the question of the morality of pay scales. Now those employees are costing any given state 10′s or 100′s of thousands of dollars via Medicare etc each year.

    Now as a capitalist, I understand and appreciate that the CEO made good choices and worked hard (in theory) to find that silver lining, but also keep in mind that if it wasn’t for the peons making $8-an-hour and collecting public assistance, that CEO would be out of a job.

    I believe that the CEO of Wal-Mart should make a lot more money than a stockboy, but at the same time I find it morally repugnant that the CEO is sailing around on a yacht while the stockboy is turning-in soda bottles on the off chance he may collect enough to get his power turned back on.

    We should also keep in mind that local communities thrive when employees at surrounding businesses are paid decent wages. Everyone is helped, including businesses. We shouldn’t be against this as conservatives.

    As for me, I don’t take care of elderly people, although some of my patients are elderly. Specifically, I take care of mentally disabled people. Some are old, some are young. And while I’m not happy with the little bit of money I get paid, I don’t mind it because I like the work I do and I will be in a position shortly to make much more money. But other people aren’t as fortunate as I am.

    • That point by nash is irrelevant. Even if the ceo of walmart makes 53 million, walmart employs 1.3 million people. If we took the ceo’s entire salary and divided it up, they all get $40.76. Thats an extra 84 cents a week.

  11. John,

    You think the CEO of Wal-Mart is the only one making millions a year? Come on. They have CFOs, VIce Presidents, etc, etc, etc… – ad nauseam. They all make boatloads a year.

    • Right but they make less than the big boss and the numbers go down from the top. So even if the top 100 salaries were divided up its still only going to be $25-50 a week more at the most

      • John,

        I dispute those numbers, but regardless, you’re not taking into account bonuses, big-time benefits, and the billions in capital companies like Wal-Mart have – and oftentimes unnecessarily. They could comfortably operate with half the capital.

        The bottomline is that Wal-Mart could afford to pay their employees a living wage – yet they don’t.

        • It seems that if we distill the questions down we are left with a conversation about the morality of a living wage. If capitalism/free enterprise is so awesome then why, in spite of so much federal welfare to prop it up, do we have an ever increasing number of people forced to take jobs that will never pay enough to live on? These jobs used to provide for families. The dollar bought 40% more in 1968 than it does now. If you don’t tie wages to a cost of living reference, these workers will become an ever increasing burden to the states.

          The type of unethical capitalism we are up against, is the unchecked forever pro board of directors/shareholders, at the perpetual expense of those at the bottom of the pay scale. Prior to this type of unchecked capitalism, at the advent of American exceptionalism, companies had a tendency to “share/provide” more with the workers. This has been wholly abandoned as any kind of business/financial philosophy.
          And, for what’ it’s worth, I think it leads to ugly class divisions.

          Is it moral to knowingly and specifically pay the bulk of your employees minimum wage or pennies above? Would it be immoral or moral to pay your employees a living wage, tied to inflation for example?

        • T

          There’s not much to dispute. Let’s just say the top 100 made the same as the ceo, you split that up among the 1.3 million and you get $84 a week extra. But that’s if the top 100 all made $53 million. But once you get down past the top 10 or 15 presidents and vp’s youre in the single or very low double digit millions. Once youre at the top 20th and below youre in the hundreds of thousands. Once you divide it all up youre only talking a few dozen dollars extra a week.

  12. TerranceH says:

    Well, there certainly is that much to dispute because you’re only taking into consideration sheer salary. You aren’t considering the benefits, retirement packages, and bonuses, nor are you considering the capital of the business itself. You know damn well that Wal-Mart could afford to pay each worker another $200 a week and still be smiling when they viewed their bottom line.

  13. TerranceH says:

    Nash and I are in complete agreement – for once.

    • T

      I’m not arguing that Walmart couldnt afford another $200 a week, they could afford that and more.. I was just showing that their salaries wouldnt change much if we too all of the CEO’s pay and divided it up among everyone.

    • I also agree with Nash that corporations would and do pay just pennies over min wage — which I believe they do to stay off that radar. And I believe that’s shady and unethical.

  14. So, what’s a living wage? What’s the hourly rate?

    • The beauty of the liberal cry for living wages is its different for everyone depending on their expenses. It gives the opportunity to never make it concrete.

      • Well for the record, in spite of how easy it is to paint us as leftists or liberals or people who don’t share your exact value system, most non theists are not.

        As for a living wage, there is, if you care to look, 4 long standing equations regarding a living wage. So it has been argued as concrete for about 28 years. Congress used a form of this from the CBO the last 4 times that a president or Congressional committee has brought up the topic. It combines inflation with COL metrics for a given city, county or state etc. One interesting graph on the DofL’s website shows minimum wage from the late 60’s up until 2013. It shows that minimum wage in 1968 was at $10/hr.

        So it is only a shifting, liberal, spongy cry if you paint the conversation, and those to whom you have devoted an ideology to, in a perverted, biased or subjective way. There is in fact a number of public and private organizations talking about this without any outside taint of the culture war. This doesn’t and shouldn’t even be a conversation about us vs. them. It makes us infinitely more predictable and therefore more controllable.

  15. Would like to know who said you would be banned from In Saner Thought….if you don’t mind…..

  16. Lobotero,

    No, Larry at Woodgate’s View is the one that bans. Not you.

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