Photographer: Tim Boyle/Bloomberg
Photographer: Tim Boyle/Bloomberg

Should the U.S. raise the federal minimum wage, now $7.25 an hour, to $10.10, as President Barack Obama proposed in this week's State of the Union address?

The answer depends on many things, including whether there are more efficient ways to help the working poor. But any debate over whether to enhance a federal mandate should begin by understanding who would benefit.

The latest report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics is very helpful in breaking down the demographics. It shows that about 3.6 million people were paid at or below $7.25 an hour in 2012.

One popular misconception is that most minimum-wage earners are relatively well-off teenagers working part time in coffee shops and college book stores. But it isn't true. Teens make up only 24 percent of the total, while those 25 and older comprise 49 percent.

Another popular belief is that minimum-wage workers are mostly part-timers looking to supplement the earnings of a spouse (read: wife) or other householder. Here, the data are partially supportive. Two-thirds of minimum-wage earners hold part-time positions. And indeed they are mostly women. Females make up two-thirds of the part-timers. But among low-paid women, more than half had never married and only 15 percent were married and living with their spouses.

Looking at the U.S. labor force overall, women are almost twice as likely as men to be paid at or below $7.25 an hour (6 percent versus 3.34 percent). White women make up the largest chunk (50 percent) followed by Hispanic women (11.9 percent) and black women (9.9 percent).

Here's another surprise: Minimum-wage earners aren't mostly high-school dropouts, not by a long shot. More than 70 percent have at least a high-school diploma. More than 34 percent have had some college, and 8 percent have at least a bachelor's degree.

Get the picture? The composite of a minimum-wage earner is a woman who lives in the South, works part time in fast-food or retail and has at least a high-school degree. Next time you walk into a McDonald's south of the Mason-Dixon, wish her well.

(Paula Dwyer is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow her on Twitter.)

To contact the writer of this article Paula Dwyer at pdwyer11@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net.