PolitiFact: Mostly young earn minimum wage, but are their jobs entry-level?

This article was edited for length. To see a complete version and its sources, go to www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2014/jan/26/mitch-mcconnell/mitch-mcconnell-says-minimum-wage-young-people-ent/.

“The minimum wage is mostly an entry-level wage for young people.” -- Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., during an interview Sunday on “Fox News Sunday”

President Barack Obama is throwing his support behind congressional Democrats’ proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 and peg it to inflation.

But Republicans appear ready to stymie that proposal once again.

The topic came up this week on “Fox News Sunday” during a discussion between host Chris Wallace and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

“Isn’t it reasonable that somebody who’s working full time, 40 hours a week, should be able to live above the poverty line?” Wallace asked McConnell, referring to Obama’s calls to hike the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

“Yeah. But of course, the minimum wage is mostly an entry-level wage for young people,” McConnell replied. “We have a crisis in employment among young people right now.”

McConnell went on to say that he believes raising the minimum wage will hurt employment and “we ought to be doing things that create more jobs.”

But what about McConnell’s characterization of minimum-wage workers? Is it a workforce mostly made up of young people?

We’ll stick to the federal minimum wage, which is $7.25, since that’s the topic up for debate. As it stands, 21 states and the District of Columbia have set their minimum wage higher than the federal level.

A spokesman for McConnell pointed us to a study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Characterizations of Minimum Wage Workers,” released in February of last year.

According to the report, of the 75 million people making hourly wages in 2012, about 1.6 million earned the minimum wage while an additional 2 million earned less than $7.25 an hour. (How does one earn less than the minimum wage? Certain exceptions are carved out for “vocational education students,” “full-time students employed by retail or service establishments, agriculture, or institutions of higher education,” and those “impaired by a physical or mental disability.”)

The underlying data in the report largely back up McConnell’s claim. In fact, the report even says “Minimum wage workers tend to be young.”

How young? Only 20 percent of individuals earning hourly wages are ages 16-24, but that demographic makes up half of all individuals earning at or below the minimum wage. About a quarter of those individuals are teenagers ages 16-19 and another 25 percent are 20 to 24 years old.

Broadened to include 25- to 29-year-olds, and nearly two-thirds of all workers making at or below the minimum wage are younger than 30.

The older you get, the more likely you’re making more than $7.25.

But McConnell also described minimum-wage jobs as “entry-level.” That’s a characterization with which some may take issue.

Entry-level jobs typically indicate positions that, while at the bottom of the totem pole, have potential for growth. Young adults take entry-level jobs at companies hoping to climb the career ladder. And while wages are lower, there is potential to see considerable salary increases and/or career advancement.

A majority of minimum-wage jobs don’t really fit that description. According to the report, two-thirds are part-time, and half of all minimum-wage jobs are in the leisure or hospitality industry. This includes food service jobs such as waiters and cooks, hotel employees and movie theater workers. While many of those jobs are traditionally held by young people, they don’t typically lead to careers in those industries.

The same can be said for retail jobs, which make up an additional 16 percent of all positions paying minimum wage or less.

Our ruling

McConnell said “the minimum wage is mostly an entry-level wage for young people.” The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that indeed half of all workers making a minimum wage are 16 to 24, and an additional 20 percent are in their late 20s or early 30s. That’s a large chunk of the minimum-wage workforce, though about 30 percent of people making the minimum wage are 35 and older.

McConnell also goes a bit too far in calling these jobs “entry-level.” For most young people, these are part-time jobs in the food or retail businesses or similar industries with little hope for career advancement.

We rate McConnell’s statement as Mostly True.