Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Foundations of a Minimum Wage
distributed 8/30/13 - ©2013

The Christian scriptures are very specific: "The wages of sin are death." (Romans 6:23) But the Bible is not so clear about the appropriate wages for working in a fast food outlet.

The US minimum wage cropped up in the news from two sides this week. When coverage of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom got past "I Have a Dream", it was often noted that the 1963 event called for a national minimum wage of $2 an hour -- which would be equivalent to about $15 now. And yesterday, leading up to the Labor Day weekend, some small but highly visible strikes were held at fast food restaurants demanding a living wage of $15 an hour. (Six months ago, President Obama proposed a far less dramatic increase from $7.25 to $9 an hour.)

Two of the core ethical principles of eco-justice speak to issues like a minimum wage. The broad moral perspectives of "sufficiency" and "intrinsic worth" are important guidelines for us whether we're debating pay for workers in US cities, economic development in the poorest nations, or appropriate ways to value wildlife and natural habitat.

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The presence of a minimum wage standard -- at whatever level -- is a moral statement. It says that some pay levels are so inadequate that a society will not tolerate them as a valid ethical option. Back in 1906, Winston Churchill said, "It is a national evil that any class of Her Majesty's subjects should receive less than a living wage in return for their utmost exertions." Last winter, in the State of the Union Address, Mr. Obama made a similar point: "in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty."

A minimum wage quantifies our expectation that, when members of a community have jobs, they will be able to make ends meet. That minimum is a far cry from a promise of prosperity. An Australian court decision in 1907 referred to what is necessary for a family to "live in frugal comfort." When the US minimum wage was established in 1938, it was set at a level (25 cents an hour!) that could maintain a "minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency and general well-being, without substantially curtailing employment". It really is a minimum to what we're willing to accept.

The ethical principle of sufficiency, of "enough", holds that there is a lower limit to what can be allowed. On a global level, the income standard of $1 a day is often used to define the unacceptable edge of stark poverty. And just as an ecologist will insist on a minimum stream flow to ensure the health of fish and other riparian species, a moral economist might look to a minimum wage as one standard of fiscal sufficiency for the poor.

The US minimum wage is a very low standard. Despite Mr. Obama's good assertion, many people who work full time do live in poverty, and they do not receive what can be described as a living wage. The minimum wage in Colorado is $7.78 (slightly above the federal minimum). According to the Living Wage Calculator from MIT, a Denver family with one adult and two children requires an hourly wage of $8.80 to stay out of poverty. A living wage for that family would have to be $25.65. The MIT data is available for every county in the US, and it breaks down the expenses that they consider as the minimum for "livable" for various family configurations in that community. Take a look at your community's data to see how sufficiency might be defined.

The ethical principle of sufficiency has to be invoked in any discussion of a minimum wage. Morally, what is the bottom limit for "frugal comfort" or "health, efficiency and general well-being" that we believe should be connected to full-time work?

In a related consideration -- which is also of urgent political relevance -- if we do not hold employers to that standard, are we prepared as a society to make up the difference? "Fast-food workers earn so little money that they often qualify for food stamps and other public benefits, meaning that taxpayers have to subsidize the low wages being paid by these giant, profitable corporations," said the director of the women's labor group 9to5. Is the "safety net" of social programs adequate and secure enough to make up for an inadequate minimum wage?

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The other ethical principle to bear in mind is a more challenging one in our market society. The notion of intrinsic worth says that economic pricing is not the only, or the best, way of assessing value. Each person, however productive or attractive, is valuable in the eye of God, and in our moral accounting. The related principle of "the integrity of creation" reminds us that species and habitats have value that is not connected at all to their human profit or usefulness.

The presence of a minimum wage is a recognition of the intrinsic worth of each worker. Simply by being a member of our community, and participating in the workplace, each person deserves the respect of a decent paycheck.

In an op-ed column a few days ago, Denver's right-wing personality Mike Rosen wrote against an increase in the minimum wage. "In a market economy, an employer pays someone based on the value that his labor adds to the company's product or service. If you pay your employees more than their value added, you won't be in business for long." And Rosen is dismissive of those workers: "fast-food counter work isn't a career. It's a low-pay, low-skill, entry-level job; a start." In Rosen's view, workers are simply a resource in an economic transaction, not moral subjects deserving of respect and dignity. Apparently, if you can't call your work a "career", then you don't really matter. Intrinsic worth doesn't show up in his calculations.

The opposing view is well-stated by Greg Stevens in a helpful column on minimum wage ethics. "But we, as a society, have said: 'If you can't afford to pay your employees this minimum amount, then you simply are not viable as a business. You must come up with a better business model.'" When we accept the intrinsic worth of people in the labor force, we are not able to tolerate the indignity and injustice of sub-standard pay.

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The presence of a minimum wage places us in the context of moral decisions. The "minimum" must be tied to genuine standards of sufficiency, of what it takes to live a frugal and secure life. And the principle of intrinsic worth reminds us that all the people who seek to earn a wage of creatures of God, deserving respect.

Put in those terms, it is clear to me that the current US standard of $7.25 is way too low. And it is clear to me that treating low-income workers only as factors on a corporation's balance sheet is morally bankrupt.

As debates about minimum wages go on in the coming months -- and years -- faith communities need to be vocal and visible in proclaiming the ethical foundations for these public standards. Ethics are supposed to be our area of expertise, so let's speak out about the standards of sufficiency and intrinsic worth that must always be met by wages.

Because, as the prophet Malachi proclaims (3:5), "I will be swift to bear witness ... against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages ... and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts."


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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