Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Twisted World of the WSJ
For awhile now, I've been meaning to start writing more about my own work and experiences here on AIS, at least until football season starts. But I didn't want to get quite this personally involved; yesterday morning I received an e-mail that a policy brief I recently wrote for the Center for an Urban Future, about the importance of New York City's Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), was featured in a Wall Street Journal editorial.

Now, it's always nice to see one's work get attention, and indirectly the editorial endorsed our view that the program, which puts upwards of 40,000 New Yorkers ages 14 to 21 into subsidized employment for seven weeks every summer, is beneficial. But... well, read it for yourself and see if you can spot the problem:

...[A] sobering new report from the New York City-based Center for an Urban Future shows how minimum-wage laws are already hurting the unskilled and inexperienced.

The "Summer Help" study assesses New York City's publicly funded Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), which each year matches tens of thousands of young people between the ages of 14 and 21 with employers ranging from the local library to investment banks.
Today, however, the New York program serves 20% fewer young adults than it did in 1999, and last year it turned away 30,000 mostly black and Latino applicants. The report cites minimum wage-increases in the Empire State --one of 30 states that mandates a minimum higher than the federal floor -- as a factor in the program's decline.

"The higher state minimum wage that went into effect in 2005," writes author David Jason Fischer, "added to the challenge of funding SYEP by increasing the cost per participant, making it difficult to keep SYEP enrollment levels the same without year-over-year budget increases or additional administrative cuts." New York's minimum wage increased once again this year
to $7.15 from $6.75, adding another $3.5 million in costs.

The harm from minimum-wage laws is well-documented, and even government job programs aren't immune. ...

Did I write that sentence? Yes.

Do I "cite minimum wage increasees... as a factor in the program's decline"? HELL NO.

Entirely unmentioned in the editorial are either of the two biggest reasons we suggest for why enrollment is down from 1999: the calamitous decline in federal funding for SYEP--from $42.5 million in '99 to $5.4 million in 2006--and, to a considerably lesser extent, the lack of awareness or interest on the part of the private sector in NYC in supporting seasonal employment for young people. What they did, of course, was take one point we made, in the interest of intellectual honesty--the fact that the higher minimum wage raises the cost per SYEP participant--and stretch it beyond wafer-thin to resume their usual ideological battle against the minimum wage.

I don't suppose I need mention that I wasn't contacted before this editorial was published, nor that I vehemently disagree with its conclusion. The only time I've ever taken on the question of the minimum wage in a professional capacity was in late 2004, when we endorsed the move then current in the New York state legislature to pass the three-stage increase that has brought the wage to $7.15 per hour in our report "Between Hope and Hard Times." Before doing so, we examined a lot of research for and against minimum wage increases, and we reached an informed conclusion that such measures did considerably more good than harm. In New York, this manifestly has proven to be the case, as the Fiscal Policy Institute found six months ago in this short report.

To my knowledge, this is the first time my work has been misappropriated in this dishonest way. I wrote a letter in response to the WSJ, but have not yet heard whether or not they plan to publish it. Here's the gist:

Your July 3 editorial, “Minimum Wage, Jobless Kids,” twists the findings of the Center for an Urban Future’s report “Summer Help,” which I authored, almost beyond recognition. Notwithstanding your focus on the minimum wage, our primary finding was that the biggest reason enrollment for New York City’s Summer Youth Employment Program has decreased by 20 percent was the precipitous decline of federal dollars to support the program—from $42.5 million in 1999 to $5.4 million last summer. It is irresponsible, to say the least, to hijack this point in order to argue against the minimum wage—a premise with which we strongly disagree, and that much research has refuted.

Despite its clearly mischievous intent, the editorial has the germ of a point: if any situation justifies a sub-minimum wage, it is publicly subsidized employment for part-time workers who are not their families’ primary wage earners. Given the proven value of summer youth employment, it might well be a better public investment to employ a larger number of teens at a slightly lower hourly wage. To stretch this point into a blanket condemnation of the minimum wage, however, is a dishonest distortion of our work.

Happy 4th of July.

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