The Christian case for raising the minimum wage
Some two million low-wage workers may be looking at a more prosperous future thanks to an executive order that President Obama intends to sign that will raise the minimum wage for federal contractors. That's reason to celebrate, right? After all, 73 percent of Americans say they'd support raising the minimum wage. But you won't hear most Republican politicians clapping.
The president's proposed order is just the opening salvo in a larger, upcoming legislative battle to raise the minimum wage for everyone. But despite the GOP's recent attempts at an anti-poverty rebranding campaign, most Republicans on Capitol Hill — including perceived frontrunners for the 2016 Republican presidential bid like Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio — still resist any tinkering with wage standards. According to Ryan, Rubio, and others, raising the minimum wage is too risky because it could result in lower overall employment.
At a policy level, this is wrong. Research produced by Arin Dube and discussed at length by Mike Konczal at The Washington Post's Wonkblog suggests that raising the minimum wage within reasonable limits — to a livable level, if not a luxurious one — would result in a net reduction in poverty, contrary to GOP concerns about a loss of employment.
And at a theological level, there is an imperative to raise wages for those who don't earn enough to provide for themselves or their families. Christian politicians like Ryan and Rubio — both confirmed Catholics who have inflected their recent anti-poverty rhetoric with the ethics and language of faith — should get on board.
While there are multiple avenues through which the poor and struggling can be supported — cash transfer programs and wage subsidies, for example, might boast the same outcomes — the delivery of income through wages, rather than benefit programs, has traditionally interested Christians because it secures relationships at the local level.
In this vision of Christian society, interdependence between employers and employees is encouraged as a healthy societal bond. In other words, society becomes stronger and more cohesive as employers rely on workers for their labor, and workers rely on their labor to provide the material necessities of family life. At a broader level, the entire community also depends upon their labor for the production of goods and services needed to support society. It's a vision in which family life, community, and worship are paramount — but it takes a living wage to realize.
One of the earliest articulations of this idea came in an 1891 papal encyclical entitled Rerum Novarum, produced under the papacy of Pope Leo XIII. Rerum Novarum argues that "…there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner."
In other words, if a person's hard work is insufficient to support the greater goods in life — such as maintaining and actively engaging with a family — then something has gone awry. Human life has been diverted into the service of labor rather than vice versa.
A number of well-known Catholics, including Father John Ryan, were early advocates of a living wage, pressing the issue even during the era of the New Deal. In Father Ryan's 1912 dissertation A Living Wage, he argues that not only does everyone have a right to live from the bounty of creation, but that they have the right to attain it through work.
This tradition — echoed by the many Christian thinkers writing between Pope Leo XIII, Father Ryan, and our own era — continues on in the work of many contemporary theologians, such as John Milbank, who supports the "ethical negotiation of wages." The common thread here is the notion that it is an injustice for low-income workers to work honestly and nonetheless not be able to support the final goods human beings are most fit for: Family life, social engagement, and ultimately participation in a life lived toward God. It is these three things — not labor for labor's sake — that should define a Christian society.
With this view in mind, it is imperative that confessed Christians like Ryan and Rubio should support the extension of a living wage to low-income workers. The dignity of human beings requires that they not only be able to have family life and a place in society, but to enjoy those goods and devote themselves fully to their development. It's true that the capabilities of specific businesses — especially the very new and very small — may differ from the capabilities of larger and more institutional businesses, and in those cases it seems sensible to provide for low-income workers through separate programs. But for the majority of low-income workers, the worst privations of poverty could easily be a thing of the past — should the Christian politicians who profess to being so concerned about them merely support a living wage.