In the USA, the minimum wage is 35% of the median wage (in France it is 60%, in Britain - 45%, and in the Netherlands it is declining). When wages are downward-flexible - more lowly skilled jobs are created. A 1% rise in the minimum wage reduces the probability of finding such a job by 2-2.5% in both America and France, according to the NBER (Lemieux and Margolis).
The proponents of minimum wages say they reduce poverty and increase the equality of wealth distribution. Their opponents (such as Peter Tulip of the Federal Reserve) blame them for job destruction, mainly by raising the NAIRU. The OECD's position is that wage regulation cannot remedy poverty. As "The Economist" succinctly puts it, "few low paid workers live in low-income households and few low-income households include low paid workers. (Thus), the benefits of the minimum wage, such as they are, largely bypass the poor."
Again, it is important to realize that unemployment is not universal - it is concentrated among the young, the old, the under-educated, the unskilled, and the geographically disadvantaged. One in eight of all workers under the age of 25 in the USA are unemployed, more than twice the national average (the figure in France is one in four). A 10% rise in the minimum wage - regardless of its level - reduces teenage employment by 2-4%, calculates the OECD.
Many countries (USA, UK, France) introduced "training wages" - actually, minimum wage exemptions for the young. But even this sub-minimum wages still represent a high percentage of mean youth earnings (53% in the USA and 72% in France) and thus have an inhibiting effect on youth employment.
Minimum wages do reduce inequality by altering the income distribution and by equalizing wages across ages and genders - but they have no effect on inequality and poverty reduction, insists the OECD. "The Economist" quotes these figures (in 1998):
"In American households with less than half the median household income, only 33% of adults have a low-paid job. (compared to 13% in the Netherlands and 5% in the UK). In most poor households no one is employed in a regular job. Many low earners, on the other hand, have well-paid partners, or affluent parents ... Only 33% of those Americans who earn less than two-thirds of the median wage live in families whose income is less than half the national median. (In the UK the figure is 10% and in Ireland - 3%). Over a 5-year period, only 25% of low paid Americans are in a poor family at some point; in Britain 10% are."
Thus, minimum wages seem to hurt poor families with teenagers (by making teenage employment unattractive) while benefiting mainly the middle class.
Still, the absolute level of the minimum wage seems to be far more important that its level relative to the average or median wage. Hungary's unemployment went down, from 9% to 6%, while its minimum wage went up (in real terms) by 72% in 1998-2001. During the same four year period, its economy grew by an enviable 5% a year, real wages skyrocketed (by 17%), and its inflation dropped to 7% (from 16%).