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The average minimum wage worker today is not who you think

Tyree Johnson, a 20-year McDonald's employee making minimum wage, rides a train on his way to work in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., on Nov. 26, 2012.
Tyree Johnson, a 20-year McDonald's employee making minimum wage, rides a train on his way to work in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., on Nov. 26, 2012.

The myth that the typical minimum-wage worker is a teenager flipping burgers after school has been pretty well put to rest. As Laura D’Andrea Tyson, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Clinton, noted recently in the New York Times Economix blog, women aged 25 and over constitute one-third of all minimum-wage workers, compared to teenagers of both sexes combined, who constitute about one-quarter.

But you still hear it said that female minimum-wage workers typically supplement their husband’s earnings with “pin money” -- that a family's financial security doesn’t really rely on minimum-wage work. Or, in families where the woman is the principal wage-earner (as seems increasingly to be the case), that the husband is working only enough so he can buy himself a six-pack without getting an earful from the ol’ ball and chain.

You also sometimes hear it said that while the typical minimum-wage earner may not be a teenager, he (or, more typically, she) is likelier than not still pretty young. That’s true: a slight majority of minimum-wage earners are between the ages of 16 and 24. The implication, once again, is that this person can’t possibly be a significant breadwinner for her family; more likely, she’s a middle-class suburbanite working after school so she can save up to buy herself a used car.

But these twin caricatures are misleading at best, as recent calculations by Doug Hall of the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington nonprofit, make plain.

If we were to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, as Iowa Democrat Sen. Tom Harkin and California Democrat Rep. George Miller have proposed and President Obama supports, you wouldn’t just be boosting income for the 17 million workers currently making between $7.25 an hour (or a bit more in some states that have their own minimum wage) and $10.10 an hour. Indirectly, you’d also be boosting, to a fairly predictable extent, income for another 11 million workers making slightly more than $10.10, for a total cohort of 28 million. And the average worker in this larger group provides fully half of his or her family income.

Let me say that again. The average worker who’d be affected by President Obama’s proposed increase in the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour is currently responsible for half of his or her family’s income. By definition, that’s not "pin money," and it isn’t money being saved up to purchase a pre-owned Dodge Caliber. It’s money the family is counting on to pay the mortgage and put food on the table.

Who are these low-wage earners? Well, not quite one-third are unmarried with no kids, which in most cases will mean they live alone and provide 100% of their “family” income. Do all these single people skew the data? Sure, a little (though it’s important to remember that childless singles have to eat, too). But almost as many -- 27% -- are married, which presumably means two incomes. The remaining 29% are single parents, which means their low wages must provide 100% of a family income that supports an actual family.

Now let’s eliminate the skew in the data that’s created by all those single, childless people. When you break out the working wives (or husbands) who’d be affected by the minimum-wage hike, along with the working kids, the contribution to the family budget of these oft-dismissed economic actors is still very substantial.

If our low-wage worker is in a family with two or more workers (i.e., is a working husband, wife, son, or daughter), he or she contributes, on average, 44% of total family income. If our low-wage worker is in a family with two or more workers over 18 (i.e., in most cases, is a working husband or wife), then this person contributes, on average, 47%. (Thanks to EPI’s Doug Hall for running these additional numbers at MSNBC’s request.)

What this means is that it’s simply wrong to dismiss the beneficiaries of a minimum-wage hike to $10.10 as frivolous folk on whom families don’t rely economically. Quite the contrary. These low-wage family members bring home the bacon -- what little there is to be had. Time to give them a little more.