Raising the Minimum Wage: A Moral Dilemma?

Maria Taylor

Should people who work still be poor, despite the hard work and effort they put into their jobs? This is a question that hundreds of people debate and argue about the correct answer, and the discussion is what ultimately leads to the establishment of a minimum wage.

In 1981, Pope Leo XIII wrote his papal letter Rerum Novarum or “Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor” in order to address the inhumane conditions of the working class and respond to a social conflict that had arisen around the time of Industrialization. At the time, the present age had handed over the poor, working individuals to employers who failed to ensure and protect their basic human rights. Leo recognized how each inhumane, greedy employer insufficiently protected the workers against injustices, and he extended his sympathy to the poor with a “downcast heart.” Pope Leo felt that the poor did not deserve to live in the miserable, wretched conditions they had been in, and he wanted to change that by placing more money in the hands of the poor in exchange for the same work they typically did. In order to build social harmony and protect the interests and rights of the working poor, Pope Leo addressed the roles and duties of each party in a society. For example, the duty of the state is to promote social justice by protecting the rights of every person, while the role and duty of the workers is to “fully and faithfully” perform their agreed upon tasks, to individually refrain from vandalism or personal attacks, and to refrain from rioting and violence. Also, employers have rights and duties to their workers. They must to provide fair wages, provide time off for religious practice and family life, provide work suited to each person’s gender, age, and strength, and respect the dignity of workers, and never regard them as slaves. Once each group knows their duty they owe to one another, they must not only live them out, but do so harmoniously with the other groups of people. Pope Leo makes it clear in his letter that each person in the work environment depends on each other. “Capital cannot do without labor, nor labor without capital. Mutual agreement results in the beauty of good order, while perpetual conflict necessarily produces confusion and savage barbarity.” If each group of people does not keep the common interest of the other in mind or does not regard their work, no work will get completed. In order to get along fairly, both the workers and the employers must agree upon the working standards and payments. By doing so, the people are creating a safe environment for work, where the worker gets the ability to life a comfortable life just like the employer, and not a life in poverty.

Once understanding Pope Leo’s standards for workers and employers, the knowledge from the letter can be applied to present day issues. Currently, in the United States, income inequality is wider than in any other advanced nation. Most people think that the U.S., being one of the most advanced countries in the world, would have resolved this issue by now. However, with more than 3.6 million workers with wages at or below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, the United States’ income inequality only continues to grow as more and more people come to the United States.

Before the minimum wage was created, the number of people living in poverty was incredibly large. Catholics recognized the millions of people living in poverty, and for over a century, Catholic Social Teaching taught the importance of ensuring a living wage to all workers, no matter what position or profession that individual may have held. The Catholics looked to Pope Leo’s Rerum Novarum for guidance on how to act. Many churches expressed their belief in a minimum wage, and they expressed how a lack of a minimum wage violated the rights of people. The churches joined the “living wage movement,” a movement of thousands of people and communities who believe that people who work full-time should not have to struggle with finding money to raise a family or to live a comfortable life. When so much work is put into a certain job, the person putting in the work should at least be able to live a comfortable, sustainable life—not a life in poverty. The movement continuously worked to persuade the American people to create a national federal minimum wage to make the lives of those in the poor working class easier.

The first advance towards establishing a minimum wage occurred during the mid-1990’s in Baltimore, when fifty churches approached the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees to assist in creating an organization of churches with labor union members and low-wage earning service workers. The churches saw the increase in the amount of working poor people attending a soup kitchen daily, and they decided they needed to find a way to decrease that number. Concluding that minimum-wage jobs that had no benefits were not helping stop poverty, the churches decided to work towards stopping the private companies from under-paying their workers. Together overall, the union of churches created a campaign to establish a law requiring the private businesses to pay their workers a living wage at least. By July of 1996, Baltimore had established a minimum wage, which only continued to rise from $4.25 to $7.25 by 2008.

But, if there is a minimum wage, then why is there still poverty in the American society? Although the minimum wage has increased over time, its value is still a relevant issue in the society today. While millions of people currently receive the minimum hourly wage, they still struggle to raise a family and make a living. It is rare to find a person who claims that the minimum wage is sufficient to pay for rent, child care, good, health care, and utilities. If you were to do the math, adding up your salary and subtracting bills and payments, you would quickly see that the minimum wage value is simply, not enough money to live comfortably off of. When you come across families who parents only make the minimum wage, they are often on food stamps or another additional financial support. This proves the minimum wage value is not a value allowing a worker to live a comfortable life, as Pope Leo advocated for. People, particularly Catholics, are then faced with the dilemma of minimum wage. Should they protest and advocate for a change in the minimum wage, or do they leave it up to the state to provide the social justice and equality.

Despite the controversy over what the physical hourly wage, almost all people support the notion of actually having a minimum hourly wage. Because Pope Leo influenced others to recognize the right of every worker to receive wages sufficient to provide for themselves and a family, people do believe in making sure that people who work full-time are able to earn enough to keep their families out of poverty. The only debate now is about which amount of money per hour will keep a person and his or her family out of poverty. Today, the issue is continuously debated, but the common belief is that the minimum wage is simply not enough. However, the $7.25 an hour is still better than nothing. But, in order to continuously raise the minimum wage, Americans must continue to advocate for Pope Leo’s idea of equality and fairness—that all people who work full-time should appreciate a comfortable life, or one where the can easily meet all their basic needs with the money they make.

 

Sources:

“Leo XIII – Rerum Novarum.” Leo XIII – Rerum Novarum. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 December 2015 Accessed.

“What is Minimum Wage: It’s History and Effects on the Economy” James Shrek. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 December 2015 Accessed.

Carol Zimmermann, Minimum Wage Hike. 09 December 2013, 09 December 2015 Accessed.

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