States With the Lowest Minimum Wage Relative to Cost of Living

Man with empty wallet
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The pandemic-era economy has many unusual and uncertain features that have made it difficult to analyze. And one of the major open questions is what this economic period will do to wages and prices long-term.

On one hand, wages are increasing at a faster rate than they have since the depths of the Great Recession. Many employers are raising their wages—especially in lower-earning jobs—to attract more workers at a time when unemployment is high; however, businesses are struggling to fill positions. At the same time, rising prices and inflation are a fear, but economic experts disagree about whether the economy is in the midst of a problematic inflationary period. One school of thought holds that price increases are transitory, attributable to temporary conditions like supply chain breakdowns, while another suggests that the federal government’s aggressive stimulus during the pandemic has pumped too much money into the economy.

While current economic conditions starkly illustrate the tension between wages and the real value of the dollar, the phenomenon is nothing new. And this tension is at the heart of debates over whether to raise the minimum wage.

The federal minimum wage was first created in 1938 as part of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which originally set the minimum wage at $0.25 per hour. The federal minimum wage is not automatically indexed to inflation or any other economic indicator, which means that it takes an act of Congress to raise the minimum. Historically, Congress has passed increases every few years to reflect inflation and the changing purchasing power of the dollar. But the last minimum wage increase took place in 2009 to $7.25 per hour, and the time between then and now represents the longest-ever period without an increase. Even before the recent worries about inflation, normal changes in cost of living have made it harder and harder for the lowest-wage workers to subsist on that amount.

The real value of the federal minimum wage is worth 43 less than in 1968

The result of requiring Congress to act to raise the federal minimum wage is that the real value of the wage has fluctuated over time. At its peak in 1968, the minimum wage was worth $12.77 in 2020 dollars. When the last minimum wage increase took effect in 2009, the wage was worth $9.22 per hour in 2020 dollars. This means that the real value of the current $7.25 wage is down 43% from its historical peak, down 21% since the last increase, and at one of its lowest-ever levels in recent history.

The federal minimum wage is just one tool for increasing workers’ pay. Another major policy lever is state minimum wages. Currently, 30 states have enacted their own minimum wages above the federal minimum of $7.25, ranging from as low as $8.75 to $14 in nation-leading California. Most of the states with higher minimum wages are located in the western or northeastern U.S., where cost of living tends to be higher.

Only 30 states have minimum wages above the federal minimum of $7.25


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In some of the 20 states that have not raised the minimum wage, cost of living is low, so the federal minimum wage does not create as much pressure on household finances. In others, however, the real value of the minimum wage relative to cost of living is much lower, and low-wage workers may have a harder time getting by.

To determine the states with the lowest minimum wage relative to cost of living, researchers at Self Financial calculated the cost-of-living adjusted minimum wage in each state using minimum wage data compiled from state government websites, cost-of-living data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, and poverty data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Here are the states with the lowest minimum wage relative to cost of living.

States With the Lowest Cost-of-Living Adjusted Minimum Wages

Indianapolis, Indiana
Photo Credit: Sean Pavone / Shutterstock

15. Indiana

  • Minimum wage (cost-of-living adjusted): $8.17
  • Minimum wage (actual): $7.25
  • Cost of living (compared to average): -11.3%
  • Poverty rate: 11.9%
Des Moines, Iowa
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14. Iowa

  • Minimum wage (cost-of-living adjusted): $8.15
  • Minimum wage (actual): $7.25
  • Cost of living (compared to average): -11.0%
  • Poverty rate: 11.2%
Wichita, Kansas
Photo Credit: Sean Pavone / Shutterstock

13. Kansas

  • Minimum wage (cost-of-living adjusted): $8.13
  • Minimum wage (actual): $7.25
  • Cost of living (compared to average): -10.8%
  • Poverty rate: 11.4%
Bismarck, North Dakota
Photo Credit: Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock

12. North Dakota

  • Minimum wage (cost-of-living adjusted): $8.12
  • Minimum wage (actual): $7.25
  • Cost of living (compared to average): -10.7%
  • Poverty rate: 10.6%
Nashville, Tennessee
Photo Credit: Mihai_Andritoiu / Shutterstock

11. Tennessee

  • Minimum wage (cost-of-living adjusted): $8.08
  • Minimum wage (actual): $7.25
  • Cost of living (compared to average): -10.3%
  • Poverty rate: 13.9%
Charleston, South Carolina
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10. South Carolina

  • Minimum wage (cost-of-living adjusted): $7.92
  • Minimum wage (actual): $7.25
  • Cost of living (compared to average): -8.5%
  • Poverty rate: 13.8%

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Raleigh, North Carolina
Photo Credit: Farid Sani / Shutterstock

9. North Carolina

  • Minimum wage (cost-of-living adjusted): $7.91
  • Minimum wage (actual): $7.25
  • Cost of living (compared to average): -8.3%
  • Poverty rate: 13.6%
Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Photo Credit: f11photo / Shutterstock

8. Wisconsin

  • Minimum wage (cost-of-living adjusted): $7.89
  • Minimum wage (actual): $7.25
  • Cost of living (compared to average): -8.1%
  • Poverty rate: 10.4%
Boise, Idaho
Photo Credit: Charles Knowles / Shutterstock

7. Idaho

  • Minimum wage (cost-of-living adjusted): $7.86
  • Minimum wage (actual): $7.25
  • Cost of living (compared to average): -7.8%
  • Poverty rate: 11.2%
Cheyenne, Wyoming
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6. Wyoming

  • Minimum wage (cost-of-living adjusted): $7.81
  • Minimum wage (actual): $7.25
  • Cost of living (compared to average): -7.2%
  • Poverty rate: 10.1%
Atlanta, Georgia
Photo Credit: Luciano Mortula-LGM / Shutterstock

5. Georgia

  • Minimum wage (cost-of-living adjusted): $7.78
  • Minimum wage (actual): $7.25
  • Cost of living (compared to average): -6.8%
  • Poverty rate: 13.3%
Austin, Texas
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4. Texas

  • Minimum wage (cost-of-living adjusted): $7.51
  • Minimum wage (actual): $7.25
  • Cost of living (compared to average): -3.5%
  • Poverty rate: 13.6%
Salt Lake City, Utah
Photo Credit: Maciej Bledowski / Shutterstock

3. Utah

  • Minimum wage (cost-of-living adjusted): $7.51
  • Minimum wage (actual): $7.25
  • Cost of living (compared to average): -3.5%
  • Poverty rate: 8.9%
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
Photo Credit: Jon Bilous / Shutterstock

2. Pennsylvania

  • Minimum wage (cost-of-living adjusted): $7.47
  • Minimum wage (actual): $7.25
  • Cost of living (compared to average): -3.0%
  • Poverty rate: 12.0%

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Nashua, New Hampshire

Photo Credit: Jon Bilous / Shutterstock

1. New Hampshire

  • Minimum wage (cost-of-living adjusted): $6.81
  • Minimum wage (actual): $7.25
  • Cost of living (compared to average): +6.5%
  • Poverty rate: 7.3%

Methodology & Detailed Findings

Minimum wage statistics by state were compiled from state government websites; statistics on cost of living by state were sourced from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis’s *Regional Price Parities* (RPP) dataset; and poverty statistics were sourced from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 *American Community Survey*. To determine the states with the lowest minimum wage relative to cost of living, researchers calculated the cost-of-living adjusted minimum wage in each state by dividing the state’s actual minimum wage by its corresponding RPP. In the event of a tie, the state with the lower actual minimum wage was ranked higher.

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Written on October 14, 2021
Self is a venture-backed startup that helps people build credit and savings. Comments? Questions? Send us a note at hello@self.inc.

Disclaimer: Self is not providing financial advice. The content presented does not reflect the view of the Issuing Banks and is presented for general education and informational purposes only. Please consult with a qualified professional for financial advice.

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