Who Earns the Minimum Wage

Wage Basics

Who Earn the Minimum Wage

Making the completely reasonable request that employers pay a living wage would be a lifeline for a huge number of workers.

The problem of stagnant and inadequate wages is certainly most stark when we look at those earning just the federal minimum wage, but millions upon millions of other Americans, working in what many think of as “middle-class” jobs, also barely make enough to make ends meet. 

An astonishing 40% of American workers make less than $15 an hour. That is 40% of the American working population that works, yet still has trouble affording their basic living needs. This is unconscionable. It’s unacceptable. And it’s a direct result of an economy and a set of laws that have been built by the donor class to make themselves richer at the country’s expense. We need to end this, and we do so by raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and giving four in ten Americans a raise.

Most people’s vision of the average minimum wage worker is a pimply-faced high schooler working a summer job to save up enough money to go out with friends on the weekend. Well, most people are wrong. The stereotypes about the average minimum wage worker couldn’t be further from the truth.

Contrary to the popular image of a high schooler flipping burgers for extra spending money, only 12% of minimum wage workers are teenagers. The average for all minimum wage workers in America is actually 35 years old, with 36% in their 40s or older. And they’re not just working for extra spending money, these are adults who often have families to take care of. 28% of minimum wage workers have children to support. 

The idea that the minimum wage is just a “starter” wage that’s intended to be a temporary placeholder before finding a “real” job is just not true. Millions of Americans work at these jobs full-time for an extended period of time, and while I’m sure most would like to find higher paying careers elsewhere, that’s not an option for many. Maybe at one point the minimum wage really was a way for teenagers to get some experience (although most evidence says that was never really the case), but that’s certainly not the economic reality today.

The number of people earning, below, or just above the minimum wage is astonishingly high. As of 2018 (the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics), 434,000 Americans earned exactly the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, while 1.3 million earned less than that. This means a total of 1.7 million workers, or 2.1 percent of all hourly-paid workers in America, make no more than $7.25 an hour. That number is an economic and moral travesty on its own, but even that fails to capture the entire picture.

NEXT: How $15 Works →