What should governments do with the level of the minimum wage (MW) in
times of recession? In an economic downturn when most workers face falling
real wages is it appropriate to let the MW fall or are the positive effects of the
MW on inequality enough to justify its uprating – and if so what might be the
consequences on a country’s employment level? This paper reports new estimates
of the employment effects of the MW by focusing on the recessionary experiences
across countries. Using international data we exploit: cross-national variation
in the level and timing of the MW uprating and the exact timing of the recessionary
experiences in different countries with a panel data set comprising 33
OECD over the period 1971–2009. Our panel data allow us to differentiate
the effect of MWs on employment in periods of economic downturn as well as
periods of economic growth. We also account for institutional and other policy
related differences that might have an impact on employment other than the
MW. We find that the answer depends on whether one considers adults or
young people, and to some extent, on what measure of the MW is considered.
The answer is also somewhat sensitive to whether one considers that the MW
level is a choice option of the government which is inextricably interrelated to
the determination of employment – that is, the extent to which the MW is
endogenous. Using a ‘political complexion of the government’ instrumental variable
(IV) we find that the MW only has a negative impact on youth employment.
This leaves each government with the dilemma of raising the MW and
reducing inequality or increasing the MW and accepting that this will reduce
employment levels amongst young people and those on the margins of work.