Strategy overview

  • Requiring higher pay than the federal rate: Living wage laws require all employers within a jurisdiction to pay wages at a rate higher than the federal minimum wage ($7.25 for untipped workers; $2.13 for tipped workers). Increasingly, living wage laws are designed to phase out a subminimum wage for tipped workers altogether, often over a period of 3-5 years.
  • Making market-specific adjustments: Local living wage laws take into account market-related costs (such as food, child care, housing transportation, and more) to determine basic living costs and self-sufficiency. Many newer living wage laws also build in annual increases to account for changes in the cost of living and inflation.
  • Multiple pathways to implementation: Some localities advance living wage laws through ballot measures; others may pass legislation through a city or county council. Legislation may also include related benefits, such as supplemental pay when an employer does not provide health insurance, unpaid and paid days off, and various job protections.
  • Enforcing the law: Living wage laws and other worker protection laws can be enforced by a range of jurisdictional agencies. These can include a department of worker protection, an office of labor standards, the mayor’s office of equity, and more. Dedicated staff, often including attorneys, are responsible for raising awareness about the law, reviewing and investigating complaints, and facilitating settlements between workers and employers.

A large body of evidence demonstrates that living wage laws can increase earnings and reduce poverty in some circumstances. However, more evidence is needed to confirm the scale and duration of such effects. 

  • Synthesized research of living wage laws shows that they can increase earnings and alleviate poverty. Effects are most pronounced for individuals close to the poverty line.

  • Synthesized research on minimum wage shows mixed results, with modest positive impacts on health outcomes and income for some residents. However, the results are inconsistent in demonstrating a reduction in poverty rates.

Before making investments in this strategy, city and county leaders should ensure this strategy addresses local needs.

The Urban Institute and Mathematica have developed indicator frameworks to help local leaders assess conditions related to upward mobility, identify barriers, and guide investments to address these challenges. These indicator frameworks can serve as a starting point for self-assessment, not as a comprehensive evaluation, and should be complemented by other forms of local knowledge.

The Urban Institute's Upward Mobility Framework identifies a set of key local conditions that shape communities’ ability to advance upward mobility and racial equity. Local leaders can use the Upward Mobility Framework to better understand the factors that improve upward mobility and prioritize areas of focus. Data reports for cities and counties can be created here.

Several indicators in the Upward Mobility Framework may be improved with investments in living wage laws. To measure these indicators and determine if investments in these interventions could help, examine the following:

Mathematica's Education-to-Workforce (E-W) Indicator Framework helps local leaders identify the data that matter most in helping students and young adults succeed. Local leaders can use the E-W framework to better understand education and workforce conditions in their communities and to identify strategies that can improve outcomes in these areas.

Several indicators in the E-W Framework may be improved with investments in this strategy. To measure these indicators and determine if investments in this strategy could help, examine the following:

  • Access to jobs paying a living wage: Percentage of jobs in a county or metropolitan statistical area (MSA) for which the ratio of average pay to the location-adjusted cost of living is greater than one.

  • Employment in a quality job: Percentage of individuals employed in a quality job, as defined by scores on an indexed measure, such as the Good Jobs Scorecard, which assesses pay and benefits, scheduling, potential career paths, safety, and security.

  • Economic mobility: Percentage of individuals who reach the level of earnings needed to enter the fourth (60th to 80th percentile) income quintile in their state or above 1, 3, 5, 10, and 15 years after completing their highest degree or leaving education (high school or postsecondary).

  • Create a broad advocacy coalition: Living wages often are the subject of significant opposition from large employers of minimum wage workers in the area. To build public momentum for implementation, partner closely with grassroots organizers, labor rights groups, and others. Doing so will also help implementers gather input on local needs, inform specific rules related to the legislation (such as the best ways to encourage workers to file complaints), and raise worker awareness.
  • Engage with the business community: Living wage laws can be associated with short-term cost increases for some businesses. To appropriately address any concerns, engage early and regularly with the business community; communicate the myriad benefits of living wage policies, such as decreased employee turnover and increased productivity, and be prepared for an ongoing dialogue and significant pushback.
  • Leverage the power of local government spending: Local government procurement processes can encourage the proliferation of living wages; for instance, apply living wage policies to businesses receiving government contracts and/or those receiving economic development subsidies.
  • Move beyond hourly wages: Consider supplemental compensation to a base living wage, such as additional pay when an employer does not provide health insurance, unpaid and paid days off, and various job protections.
  • Invest in enforcement capacity: High-impact laws typically results from significant investment in increased enforced capacity (i.e. staff to review and investigate complaints and marketing budget to raise awareness of new laws). Dedicate significant resources to developing and communicating enforcement mechanisms and penalties for noncompliance by covered employers.