Minimum Wage Laws 100 Years Later

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This week marks the 100th anniversary of the nation's first minimum wage law, adopted in Massachusetts in 1912.

Back then, the law only applied to woman and children. Women had become a significant part of the workforce and the state government decided it was time to set some standards.

Here's a passage from a report from the Commission on Minimum Wage Boards from 1912:

Women in general are working because of dire necessity, and in most cases the combined income of the family is not more than adequate to meet the family's cost of living.

In these cases it is not optional with the woman to decline low paid employment. Every dollar added to the family income is needed to lighten the burden which the rest are carrying.

Wherever the wages of such a woman are less than the cost of living and the reasonable provision for maintaining the worker in health, the industry employing her is in receipt of the working energy of a human being at less than its cost, and to that extent is parasitic.

Parasitic. Cost of living. Worker health. Those 100-year-old words sound practically modern. But the minimum wage has gone through a lot of changes over the century, as has the workforce.

We explore the origins of the minimum wage in Massachusetts, as well as discuss its function in the modern economy.


  • Bob Forrant, professor, Department of Regional Economic and Social Development at UMass Lowell.
  • David Neumark, professor of economics, director of the Center for Economics and Public Policy at UC Irvine


This segment aired on June 5, 2012.


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