MITT ROMNEY has had a rough time explaining how he would maintain a social safety net for the poor. His recent remarks have suggested callousness. But amid the kerfuffle, he offered one good idea: specifically, he told the Associated Press on Wednesday that he backs indexing the federal minimum wage to inflation, just as he did when running for governor of Massachusetts a decade ago.
Currently $7.25 per hour, the federal minimum last went up in July 2009. As an anti-poverty measure, it is far from perfect. Among the relative handful of people affected — about 6 percent of the hourly work force — a disproportionate number are teenagers from middle-income families. At the margins, minimum-wage increases probably destroy jobs in small restaurants, landscaping and janitorial firms — as the city of San Francisco, which has just imposed a highest-in-the-nation $10.24 minimum, may soon find out.
Still, the minimum wage does put a floor under the incomes of many poor, unskilled laborers who support dependents and would otherwise have less bargaining power with employers. It is both a practical and symbolic expression of the idea that market competition is healthy — within certain very broad limits. This is why the minimum wage is popular and why it’s probably here to stay.