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Policy: Economy

Further look at minimum wage polls finds support broad but shallow

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Sean Higgins,Jobs,Economy,Minimum Wage

President Obama and the rest of the Democrats are pushing the minimum wage hike issue hard this week -- and why wouldn't they? It is one of the few issues they have right now that polls really well, with most surveys finding upwards of 60 percent to 70 percent of people backing it. Surely that means a huge groundswell of support, right?

Maybe not. A closer look at the polls shows that support for an increase has actually fallen, compared to previous years. A January Pew Research Center survey found that 73 percent supported raising the minimum, but Pew's prior surveys put the total support at 84 percent as recently as 2007. In 2001, it was 87 percent.

Still, 73 percent is a solid majority. Surely, any politician who opposes it risks getting the public's wrath? Again, maybe not. One major flaw in most polls is that they rarely show how strongly people feel on a particular issue. Require people in a survey to make a choice and they will, but choosing "x" rather than "y" or "z" does not mean they are fired up about it.

It is important to remember that few people actually earn the federal minimum wage, which is currently $7.25 an hour. The Labor Department puts the figure at just 4.7 percent. They are mostly young -- 55 percent are between 16 and 24 years old -- and the vast majority, 68 percent, are part-time workers. There's a reason why the stereotype of the minimum-wage worker is a teenager flipping burgers. For most people in the workforce, raising the minimum wage just won't affect them directly.

Of the majority who said they wanted a higher minimum wage in the January Pew poll, only 40 percent "strongly supported" it. That level has been steadily declining for years, too. It was 48 percent in 2007, 49 percent in 2006, and 53 percent in 2004. Meanwhile, strong opposition has doubled, from 8 to 16 percent.

So while there is a majority in favor of a minimum wage hike, it is a weaker majority than in previous years — and this is despite the fact that the issue has been getting a lot more play in the news.

Put the increase in context to how it may impact to the economy and support drains away. A question in a March survey for Bloomberg noted that the Congressional Budget Office found that hiking the wage from the current rate of $7.25 to $10.10, as Democrats propose, would increase the incomes of 16.5 million Americans while eliminating 500,000 jobs. Asked if that tradeoff seemed acceptable, 57 percent said "no."

Yes, you could argue that was a loaded question, but that's kind of the point: If the public was as strongly invested in the issue as Democrats claim, it should not have swayed them. It wasn't an outlier either. A January Quinnipiac poll found that 50 percent of people agreed a hike would "lead businesses to cut jobs."

It is not clear that those who support a higher minimum wage want it to be that much higher either. A December Washington Post/ABC poll found that 80 percent wanted the wage higher, but of that share, only 43 percent thought it should be higher than $9 an hour. Only 18 percent thought the rate should be more than $10 an hour, as Democrats are proposing.

What the data suggests is that the public supports a hike, but with a shrug. People are skeptical of claims that it will have a serious, harmful effect on the economy and think it might help a few people, so why not? But it is unlikely to affect them personally. Politicians who want to reach the middle class — where the most voters are — should maybe focus on policies that will benefit everyone.

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