What Is the Federal Minimum Wage?

A billboard on Highway 99 in California reads “World's Highest Wages” and “There's no way like the american way.” Circa 1937. Credit: Dorothea Lange/Library Of Congress/Getty Images

In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act. This legislation affirmed that workers are entitled to a certain amount of compensation for their labor by instituting the first federal minimum wage in the United States. But the conversation didn’t stop there. In fact, since its introduction, the federal minimum wage has been raised 22 times. Even today, minimum wage — which isn’t inherently adjusted to reflect higher costs of living — remains a hotly debated topic.

While the 1938 legislation marked an important first in U.S. history, laborers' push for a fair minimum wage actually had its modern-day origins in France a century earlier. In 1831, silk industry workers in Lyon went on strike, demanding a livable minimum wage. Over 60 years later, New Zealand became the first nation to institute a federal minimum wage with its 1894 Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act. This revelatory piece of legislation made the world take notice.