The Rise of American Minimum Wages, 1912-1968

Price Fishback, Andrew Seltzer

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This paper studies the judicial, political, and intellectual battles over minimum wages from the early state laws of the 1910s through the peak in the real federal minimum in 1968. Early laws were limited to women and children and were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court between 1923 and 1937. The first federal law in 1938 initially exempted large portions of the workforce and set rates that became effectively obsolete during World War II. Later amendments raised minimum rates, but coverage did not expand until 1961. The states led the way in rates and coverage in the 1940s and 50s and again since the 1980s. The most contentious questions of today—the impact of minimum wages on earnings and employment—were already being addressed by economists in the 1910s. By about 1960, these discussions had surprisingly modern concerns about causality but did not have modern econometric tools or data.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)73-96
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of Economic Perspectives
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2021


  • Minimum wages

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