On March 29 and 30 2021, social media posts claiming the minimum wage would be $44 in 2021 if it had risen at the same rate as “Wall Street bonuses” were enormously, virally popular on Twitter and Imgur:
Had the minimum wage increased at the same rate as Wall Street bonuses since 1985, it would be $44 today.
— Robert Reich (@RBReich) March 29, 2021
A March 29 2021 tweet by Krystal Ball (@krystalball) was shared in the Imgur post above; it linked to a March 29 2021 CBS News/MarketWatch article. The article began:
The disconnect between Wall Street and Main Street has perhaps never been more glaring in the past year [2020/2021], when the stock market hit new records even as tens of millions of people lost their jobs due to the pandemic. But it’s part of a longer-term trend, with Wall Street bonuses surging 1,217% since 1985, or about 10 times the pace for minimum wage workers during the same stretch.
If the federal minimum wage had kept up with the same growth as Wall Street bonuses, the baseline rate would be $44, according to a new analysis from the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-leaning think tank that examines income and pay inequality. The baseline wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour for more than 11 years, the longest period it’s gone without an increase since it began in 1938.
The typical bonus for a Wall Street employee jumped 10% last year to $184,000, the New York State Comptroller said on [March 26 2021], which served as the basis for the IPS’ analysis.
MarketWatch attributed the $44 minimum wage calculation to a “left-leaning think tank” called the Institute for Policy Studies, and included a number of details pertaining to the figure referenced:
- That the “disconnect between Wall Street and Main Street” widened in 2020 and 2021, as the functional economy stuttered due to the pandemic — while the stock market “hit new records”;
- That the events of 2020 and 2021 were not the start of the “disconnect” in question, and the trend stretched back years or decades;
- That the federal minimum wage was $7.25 an hour, remaining unchanged since 2010 or earlier (eleven years);
- Wall Street bonuses increased 10 percent between 2019 and 2020, reaching an average of $184,000;
- The New York State Comptroller disclosed information about Wall Street bonuses in 2020 on March 26 2021, and;
- Upon the release of that data in March 2021, the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) applied the observed rate of increase in Wall Street bonuses to the federal minimum wage, arriving at the $44 an hour figure.
In essence, the claim was something of a math problem. Was the actual rate of growth for Wall Street bonuses 1,217 percent between 1985 and 2020, and would an identical percentage result in a $44 minimum wage?
Source Material: New York State Figures
The IPS report was briefly featured on Twitter’s “trending topics,” and the CBS News article was widely shared.
Other outlets covered the report, but we were unable to locate an original version on the group’s social media profiles — typically, those pages featured reporting on the findings, versus the findings themselves. One such article was published by BusinessInsider.com on March 29 2021:
— Institute for Policy Studies (@IPS_DC) March 30, 2021
Three bullet points appeared at the top of the page:
- Wall Street bonuses have increased by 1,217% since 1985, according to New York comptroller data.
- If the federal minimum wage had grown at that same rate, it would be $44 an hour.
- That pay gap is also making the racial and gender pay gap worse because white men dominate finance.
Text on the first point was hyperlinked, leading to a March 26 2021 New York State (NYS) Comptroller press release (“NYS Comptroller DiNapoli: Wall Street’s 2020 Bonuses Rose Amid Volatility Average Bonus in NYC Securities Industry Reaches $184,000, Up 10%”) which began:
The average bonus paid to employees in New York City’s securities industry grew by 10 percent in 2020 to $184,000, in line with the city’s most recent 9.9 percent projection, likely allowing the city to meet or exceed its income tax revenue projections in FY2021, according to annual estimates released today by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.
“Wall Street’s near-record year shattered all expectations. The early forecast of a disastrous year for financial markets was sharply reversed by a boom in underwriting activity, historically low interest rates, and surges in trading spurred by volatile markets,” DiNapoli said. “Income tax revenue from New York City’s securities industry will help shore up state and city budgets that are strained by steep declines in other industries, but it comes with a caution. New York benefits when Wall Street succeeds, but our economy won’t fully recover until other sectors can reopen and all New Yorkers have a chance to share in economic success.”
DiNapoli estimates the 2020 bonus pool for New York City securities industry workers increased by 6.8 percent to $31.7 billion during the traditional December-March bonus season, up from $29.7 billion in 2019. The growth of the bonus pool is unique after a recessionary event. Bonuses fell by 33 percent in 2001 after 9/11 and by 47 percent in 2008 after the Great Recession. Bonuses have fallen four times since 2008, with an average decline of 12 percent.
The securities industry accounts for one-fifth of private sector wages in New York City, even though it is less than 5 percent of private sector employment. DiNapoli estimates that nearly 1 in 10 jobs in the city are either directly or indirectly associated with the securities industry.
However, the year 1985 appeared nowhere in the press release; neither was the 1,217 percent increase between 1985 and 2020 mentioned. Later in the article, a different document on the NYS Comptroller site [PDF] was linked, titled “New York City Securities Industry Bonus Pool As Estimated by the Office of the New York State Comptroller.”
According to that estimate from the Comptroller, total bonuses of an estimated $1.9 billion were awarded in 1985, the first year such data was available. That number rose to $25.6 billion in 2005, peaking at $34.3 billion in 2006 and dropping slightly to $33 billion in 2007. In 2011, the last number on the sheet, the estimate was $19.7 billion in total.
In the second bolded excerpt above, the Comptroller’s office estimated a total “bonus pool” of $31.7 billion in 2020, up from $29.7 billion in 2019. Although those numbers didn’t match the peak of $34.3 billion in 2006, they were reasonably close.
The Math: Wall Street Bonuses in 1985 vs. 2019-2021
Going back to the central math in the IPS estimates, the claim held that Wall Street bonuses were up 1,217 percent in 2020 from 1985; bonuses were estimated at $31.7 billion in 2020, and $1.9 billion in 1985.
Business Insider’s article reported:
Wall Street firms paid their New York City-based traders an average bonus of $184,000 last year, a 10% increase from 2019, New York’s comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli, said in a press release Friday [March 26 2021].
But those paydays have been skyrocketing for decades. Since 1985, Wall Street traders’ bonuses have grown 1,217% — and that’s just part of their overall pay, which was more than $406,000 on average in 2019, according to data from DiNapoli’s office.
We attempted to replicate the 1,217 percent increase between $1.9 billion in 1985 and $31.7 billion in 2020. The percentage increase we calculated between $1.9 billion and $31.7 billion was not 1,217 percent — it was 1,568 percent. Most articles noted that the bonus pool estimate rose 10 percent year-over-year from 2019 to 2020, so we tried again with the $29.7 billion figure and calculated a percentage increase of 1,463 percent.
Running the same numbers backwards, we calculated 1,217 percent of $1.9 billion, arriving at a figure of $23.1 billion. Lacking the source report, it was difficult to identify the origin of the disparity — and underselling the point of such large figures did not seem to be intuitive for that calculation.
The Math: Federal Minimum Wage at Wall Street Growth Rates
Similarly, we calculated a 1,217 percent increase from 2021’s federal minimum wage of $7.25; the rate of increase between $7.25 and $44 was 506 percent.
In 1985, the federal minimum wage was $3.35 (not $7.25), and we arrived at an increase of 1,213 percent between the 1985 minimum wage and $44 — reasonably close enough. That said, the percentage increases we calculated for 2019 and 2020 were not 1,217 percent; they were 1,463 percent and 1,568 percent respectively.
Applying that percentage to the 1985 minimum wage of $3.35 resulted in slightly different adjusted figures — the $44 would be around $52.50 or just over $56 (against the 1,213 percent increase between $3.35 and $44).
A March 26 2021 press release from the New York State Comptroller prompted the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) to estimate what the federal minimum wage ($7.25 in 2021) would be if it rose at the same rate Wall Street bonuses rose between 1985 and 2020 — IPS arrived at a figure of $44. We attempted to replicate the calculations, and they weren’t necessarily wrong. However, based on the figures provided and in absence of source material, our calculations were slightly higher on both year metrics. If the percentage increases of 1,463 percent and 1,568 percent respectively were applied to the 1985 $3.35 rate, the minimum wage would be between $52.50 and $56.