Mary Altaffer, AP
Activists cheer during a rally after the New York Wage Board endorsed a proposal to set a $15 minimum wage for workers at fast-food restaurants with 30 or more locations, Wednesday, July 22, 2015 in New York.

On New Year’s Day, 17 states across the country will raise their minimum wage. Federal and state minimum wages are a constant source of political bickering; however, the charges fueling these discussions are rarely based in fact and reality. Citizens and legislators should critically examine the facts in an effort to inform their respective voting and avoid potentially bad policymaking.

A vast majority — 98 percent — of American adults overestimate the amount of workers making the federal minimum wage, with a plurality of survey respondents missing the mark by a multiple of 30, according to a Scott Rasmussen poll. Most believe that at least 10 percent of the population is earning an hourly income at the federal minimum wage. The reality, however, is that the number of workers making the federal minimum wage is much lower — less than 1 percent of adult hourly workers.

Instead of politicizing these numbers and using them to repudiate calls for an increase in the federal minimum, pundits should be careful to place an emphasis on what really matters: people, not statistics.

Of course, this number is not the full story as it doesn’t capture those who make more than $7.25 an hour because of higher state minimum wages but who are still in the lowest income bracket. Nor does it capture those who make less than the federal minimum wage, such as tip workers. It also doesn’t capture the wages of undocumented migrants to the country who comprise 5 percent of the American workforce and significantly bolster agricultural production and domestic services in the country.

The reality stands that 1.8 million people make at or less than the federal minimum wage. Instead of dismissing this number as a small demographic within the broader workforce, policymakers should remember that those are 1.8 million people whose lives and well-being are very much affected by the opportunities made available to them.

Americans, including legislators, must understand the facts and keep things in context. They also need to have compassion for people who may be in situations that make getting ahead difficult.

As we have said previously, good policies do not grow from bad laws. While voters and lawmakers need facts, understanding and compassion, they also should trust in the effective self-regulation of free markets.

Government often does more good by allowing competition to drive wages higher, which is especially true during times of nearly full employment. This also would spare some small businesses the negative effects of a mandated wage increase.

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That said, raising the minimum wage a bit, within limits that won’t be too burdensome on businesses, may be prudent. But this can be determined only through honest debate, fueled by impartial facts.

The minimum wage debate is not nearly as simple as some would make it seem.

Everyone should have the opportunity to make a living wage, but having government step in to make a quick fix may not be the best solution, with more problems arising instead of being fixed. Legislators and voters need to take time to identify the facts and understand problems before jumping in.