The Minimum Wage as a Civil Rights Protection: An Alternative to Antipoverty Arguments?

45 Pages Posted: 26 Jul 2009 Last revised: 27 Jul 2009

Noah Zatz

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law

Date Written: July 23, 2009

Abstract

This Essay offers a new argument for the minimum wage as a contribution to a symposium on “Civil Rights Law and the Low-Wage Worker.” The minimum wage debate has been excessively focused on disputes over its efficacy as antipoverty policy, often by comparison to tax-and-transfer programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit. Because it regulates wage rates, not income, the minimum wage is best defended by specifying the wrong in paying low wages even to individuals who are not poor. Employment discrimination law provides a ready analogy because even high-income workers receive protection, including when this imposes costs on employers. Indeed, like the minimum wage, such protections face criticism for using employment law rather than tax-and-transfer programs to achieve distributive results. I suggest that this kinship runs deep.

The minimum wage arguably protects an individual against (some of) the unfair workplace consequences of an earnings capacity suppressed by morally arbitrary factors. Race, sex, and disability are examples of such factors, but not the only ones, and evidentiary constraints limit the law’s ability to identify discrimination on even those specific bases. The minimum wage may provide a kind of civil rights safety net, catching cases that fall through the often large gaps between more targeted protections.

Keywords: minimum wage, civil rights, employment discrimination law, poverty, social welfare policy, Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)

Suggested Citation

Zatz, Noah, The Minimum Wage as a Civil Rights Protection: An Alternative to Antipoverty Arguments? (July 23, 2009). University of Chicago Legal Forum, 2009; UCLA School of Law Research Paper No. 09-21. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1438234

Noah Zatz (Contact Author)

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law ( email )

385 Charles E. Young Dr. East
Room 1242
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1476
United States

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