Oklahoma made national news in April when it enacted a new law barring cities from establishing a mandatory minimum wage. Oklahoma is not the only state with a blanket ban on raising the minimum wage; a handful of other states passed similar measures over a decade ago. Governor Fallin defended the law with sweeping claims about who worked for the federal minimum of $7.25/hr in Oklahoma:
“Most minimum wage workers are young, single people working part-time or entry-level jobs. Many are high school or college students living with their parents in middle-class families.”
Is this true? Both local and national news outlets have produced good overview analysis to try and address the claims of Governor Fallin and others (Oklahoma Watch here and Pew Research here). But since the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) only provides demographic details for minimum wage workers at the national level, it’s hard to know exactly who these workers are in Oklahoma from their standard reporting tables.
The Governor’s statement (and as a result much of the news coverage) highlighted part-time workers. This is a mistake in a low-wage work state like Oklahoma. We have the 4th highest share of low-paying jobs in the U.S. and one in every three jobs is in an occupation where median annual pay is below poverty. We already know that Oklahomans are more likely than residents of other states to earn very low wages.
Focusing on part-time workers also dodges the crux of the issue. A minimum wage is intended to set a floor at the minimum pay required to ensure that even the lowest paid workers, if they are on-the-job full-time, can have a decent quality of life. So who works full-time for the minimum wage in Oklahoma? It’s not middle-class college students living at home.
We turned to the Current Population Survey (CPS), a detailed data set collected monthly and used to calculate unemployment rates, labor force participation, and health insurance coverage at the state-level. The chart below includes Oklahomans working full-time, all year for the average annual minimum wage or less:
Just over 67,000 Oklahomans worked full-time at or near $7.25/hr between 2008 and 2012. By far the largest group (72.7 percent) were heads of households or married to heads of household. Another 8.7 percent were living with a roommate or as an unmarried couple household. The overwhelming majority of Oklahomans working minimum wage jobs full-time were supporting or helping to support an entire household on their wages (81.4 percent). Only 18.6 percent fit Governor Fallin’s description of “high school or college students living with their parents in middle-class families.”