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Abstract: In 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama called on Congress to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $10.10. To the surprise of no one, Congressional Republicans blocked the move, as they had a similar proposal the year before. Seeing little hope of federal action, wage activists turned their sights on state and local governments. Riding a tide of popular support, dozens of jurisdictions voted in hikes in their own state and city minimum wage levels between 2012 and 2016. Focusing especially on the American South, which had historically opposed the minimum wage, the case uses this wage struggle as the point of departure for a review of the issues and arguments raised in this longstanding public policy controversy. Presented as a friendly overview of economic thinking for non-economists, the case explains why liberals and conservatives view the issue of income inequality so differently, why they disagree about basic wage data, and why they vigorously dispute the impact of minimum wage laws on low-income wage earners.
Learning Objective: The case was developed for use in a core ethics course taught at the Harvard Kennedy School, The Responsibilities of Public Action. It falls in the third section of that course, which concerns the application of ethical principles in policy-making. The case is used, in particular, to delve into the question of whether, and how, government should intervene to protect the interests of the working poor.