Is a Living Wage a Just Wage?

A few months ago, the Rev. Peter J. Sammon reported in America (8/26) on the Living Wage movement, which has emerged in response to the increased numbers of working poor and the growing wage inequality in society. This circumstance is especially troubling at a time of such economic prosperity. Living Wage campaigns aimed at boosting wages of the working poor through the enactment of municipal and state ordinances are growing around the country. These campaigns are usually efforts by coalitions comprised of community activists, organized labor and religious communities.

Living wage legislation generally requires businesses, agencies and organizations that accept government contracts to pay their full-time employees a living wage. Advocates seek policies to ensure that these laborers are able to survive on what they earn and to support their families without relying on public welfare for emergency health care, food stamps or other public assistance. As Father Sammon writes: “Low-wage employees look to the day when they can earn a just wage in a 40-hour work week—a wage that will provide them with adequate support for their families and provide them with time at home with their children. The Living Wage movement is one small but significant step in that direction. Justice demands of our society that we work to make a living wage a reality for our workers.”


The Living Wage movement is not, however, without its critics. Some claim it leads to a loss of jobs, a decline in city services and a drain on city finances. Other opponents view the living wage as a quixotic challenge to the laws of supply and demand. They also argue that linking the living wage with provisions for a family is not viable in a market economy. And there is much debate about whether a national minimum wage increase is the best way, or even a good strategy for achieving a living wage. Furthermore, some critics fear that a “family” living wage would be harmful to the strides that have been made by the feminist movement in achieving gender equality in the workplace.

Can we conclude that critics of the Living Wage movement are opposed to workers receiving a just wage? Perhaps. It could also be the case, however, that people of good will disagree about whether a living wage is a just wage. Such a divergence of interpretation of these concepts has long historical roots.

As the historian Lawrence Glickman explains, when in the 1870’s the term living wage became a key word in American labor rhetoric, it had no single meaning. Living wage discourse signaled a transformation in labor’s vision of the just society from a republic of small producers to a republic of wage earners, marking a critical shift toward a positive view of wage labor. Living wage proponents struggled to make the new wage labor regime consistent with working-class notions of justice and democracy. From the late 19th century to the New Deal, a living wage was generally defined as remuneration commensurate with a worker’s needs as citizen, breadwinner and consumer. It should enable wage earners to support themselves and their families and to have both the means and leisure to participate in civic life.

Proponents differed over the cash value of a living wage, but the term became shorthand for economic justice. There was, however, a certain vagueness in the term, and the living wage concept was never without the tension between subsistence and luxury as well as gender inequality. Throughout much of the 20th century, the idea of a living wage developed as a concept that was positive for men and negative for women. Most male workers reasserted wage differentials on the basis of different needs. As breadwinners, men “deserved” wages sufficient to supply the needs of their family. Married women were expected to fulfill their domestic duties in a protected home life, and single women workers were perceived as having fewer needs than men who were family providers.

One of the important lessons history teaches in regard to the living wage is that it is a historically constructed image—a relative, not absolute standard, which contains cultural and social biases. It carries messages about what some people perceive to be just and fair. But in the name of justice, the living wage has perpetuated gender inequality and a patriarchal view of the family that has benefited male workers and inflicted harm on female workers. This has occurred not only in society but throughout much of the history of Catholic social teaching as well. If the teaching itself is riddled with such distortions, how, then, can it be a means of assessing whether the Living Wage movement is a “fitting response” to Catholic social teaching on just wage, as Father Sammon suggested? We need to proceed with caution and with awareness of the distinction between values that can be universalized and the expression of those values that may vary in different historical circumstances and may contain error or harmful cultural biases.

Heedful of this admonition, I want to retrieve five essential and consistent insights from the corpus of Catholic social teaching, ranging from Pope Leo XIII’s first major social encyclical, Rerum Novarum, through the encyclical of the present pope, John Paul II, Laborem Exercens. I propose these insights as a framework for assessing whether the contemporary expression of a living wage is a just wage.

A Relational Concept

A just wage is an aspect of a fundamental ethical relationship between employer and employee, community and society. Ultimately it is grounded in the biblical notion of justice, which fundamentally suggests a sense of what is right or of what should happen among people. Biblical justice is not concerned with a strict definition of rights and duties, but with the rightness of the human condition before God and within society. Two themes in the biblical treatment of justice call for special mention. First, the justice of the community is measured by its treatment of the powerless in society. The test of any community is not how it treats the leaders, but how it treats the least advantaged. Secondly, the biblical understanding of justice is related to the experience of covenant between Yahweh and the people, which stressed a sense of reciprocal responsibility, steadfast love, mercy and truthfulness.

While biblical justice is the ideal, sinful persons require some guidance as to the minimum of justice. Catholic social teaching has therefore developed different elements of justice for various circumstances. Commutative justice pertains to the reciprocal relationship and responsibilities between employers and employees: the duty of the employer to pay a just wage and the duty of the employee to provide an honest, equitable and productive day’s work. Distributive justice pertains to society’s responsibility to promote right relationships by assuring that economic resources are distributed fairly. Contributive justice has to do with the obligation persons have to be active and productive participants in the life of society and the reciprocal societal duty to enable them to participate. Finally, social justice requires societal provisions to assure a worker a just wage. All does not rest upon the shoulders of the employer. When it is not feasible for a business to pay a just wage, then social justice requires other actors to assume their proper role—for example, the state.

Grounded in Dignity

A just wage is necessary to maintain a life of dignity for workers. Personal fulfillment and integral development are closely linked through work and just compensation. They are the material means to achieve a higher human existence, and as such the wage concept has inherent moral and spiritual meaning. The biblical theme of co-creation provides a theological rationale for a just wage and links work to human dignity. That is, by their labor human beings share in the ongoing work of divine creation. Further, all people are equal in dignity and have equal intrinsic worth. Thus, all have a right to share in the goods of creation, an inviolable right grounded in personal dignity.

The essential dignity of the person implies respect for the basic claim-rights as a moral minimum. The right to a just wage is understood in the context of the tradition on human rights. Many of the rights enumerated in Catholic social teaching are ordinarily satisfied in an accounting of the just wage—for example, food, clothing and shelter for individuals and families. Furthermore, the right to a just wage is not meant to provoke conflict. It ought not pit workers in the United States against each other, or pit workers in the United States against those who work for lower wages in other parts of the world, or pit worker against employer or groups against the state. Rights are accompanied by responsibilities and conflicts of rights should be resolved through negotiation, mutual understanding and the discovery of common ground.

Between Ethical Minimum and Maximum

There is a floor beneath which wages ought not fall and a ceiling above which wages ought not to rise. A living wage is the minimum of justice, not the full measure of justice. The minimum amount due a wage earner is not simply enough remuneration to “survive,” but it ought to be sufficient to enable a worker and his or her family to live a reasonably comfortable life, in relative simplicity, and to experience participatory community. This means, at the minimum, wages sufficient to acquire food, housing and clothing; to educate children; to acquire property; to save for the future; and various social benefits such as vacation, health care, life insurance and pension.

When economic resources are plentiful or at least sufficient to provide more than a living wage, a worker has a right to something in excess of the ethical minimum. Some guidelines are offered in the tradition for determining just compensation above this threshold. For example, the moral priority of the basic needs of those who are economically vulnerable takes precedence over the protection of the superfluities of the economically advantaged. Essential needs take priority over conveniences and luxuries. There also should be a reasonable relationship between different wages and between prices obtained for the products produced. And just compensation ought to conform in a reasonable degree to the conventional standard of life that prevails in any community or group.

An ethical maximum is informed by two features. One is the theme of a superfluity of goods, which ought to be available for assistance to others rather than maintained for private use. More recently, John Paul II has related this idea to excessive consumerism, or a “civilization of consumption,” whereby people become slaves of possessions and immediate gratification. Such a lifestyle is profoundly corrupting of the human spirit, for it is really, whatever the professed values, an operative value system that is crassly materialistic. The theme of solidarity suggests that when ratios of compensation between highest and lowest paid workers in a firm become too great, there is a loss of unity and reciprocity. Overvaluing the role of managerial elites while undervaluing the contribution of other workers to a firm’s success is a particular danger when those setting the compensation rules represent but one class and are out of touch with all but the highest executives of a firm.

Calculating the exact amount of compensation below which a worker’s salary ought not fall, and above which it ought not rise, requires prudence and flexibility, taking into account complex and changing economic and historical factors.

Sustainable and Equitable

When determining just compensation, consideration should be given to the effects that wages will have on the present and future economic well-being of the business. Wages have to allow for the capacity of a business not only to survive but to make a profit. It is unjust to demand wages so high that an employer cannot pay them without economic ruin and harmful consequences for workers. When it is not feasible for a business to pay a living wage, then social justice requires the state to assume its proper role. All does not rest upon the shoulders of the employer. Moreover, the common good requires that questions about just wages be considered not only in relation to a particular firm or community, but also with a view to the impact they have on society and the world economy.

In addition, a just wage is based upon basic material needs of workers; but it also needs to factor in their productive contributions. Equitable compensation means that employees making similar contributions to the value received by the organization should receive similar levels of compensation. Some employees will contribute more to the organization than others because of diversity in skills, education or experience and therefore in justice are due higher wages. An equitable wage recognizes this diversity in skills and talents and is determined by measure of the employee’s contribution to the organization’s productivity and profitability.

Linked With Character and Virtue

At the core, a just wage is a moral ideal toward which we strive. It has to do with character, the kind of people we are becoming and the kind of society we are in the process of creating. Making reasonable judgments about what standard of living is necessary to live in decent comfort or to live in relative simplicity requires not only normative principles but, first and foremost, becoming virtuous people. It implies moral development and moral conversion. What is our heart’s desire? For what standard of living do we strive for ourselves or others? In the Catholic social tradition, human living is primarily about acquiring wisdom, loving, serving, giving generously and receiving gratefully.

Throughout the Catholic social tradition, we find an integral link between just wage discourse and the virtues required of both employers and employees. Motivated by love, one is more apt to have a rightly ordered sense of what is necessary to live a dignified life, and one may be more willing to be self-giving and concerned about the common good. Duties of employers to treat employees justly and responsibilities of workers to be industrious and to provide an honest day’s labor flow from bonds of solidarity. Laws that enforce the right to a just wage are necessary but insufficient to elicit a commitment to the common good and to create relationships of cooperation, mutual respect and dialogue that are required to secure a just wage. Honesty, diligent work, compassion, generosity, creativity, thoughtfulness, friendship—these cannot be legislated. Yet without these and other virtues, neither market economies nor human societies are sustainable.

In light of these insights, can we conclude that the contemporary Living Wage movement is a fitting response to Catholic social teaching on the just wage? Focusing on raising the wages of the working poor above the poverty level, redressing maldistribution of economic resources through wage compensation and empowering those who are marginalized to become participating members of society—all seem to be necessary to achieve a just wage. Furthermore, the Living Wage movement gives priority to protecting the right of workers to receive at least enough compensation so that they and their families can maintain a decent livelihood.

But there are some elements of the Living Wage movement, as I understand it, that seem to warrant further exploration. Is there too much of a burden placed on the shoulders of business to pay a living wage? Government subsidies in the form of health and retirement benefits, child care or food stamps may be appropriate in light of the requirements of social justice. Does the living wage being sought meet the criteria of the minimum of justice? How much above the poverty level should wages be so that a worker can acquire food, housing, clothing and property and secure the worker’s future well-being? Should higher wages be paid to those families with more children than the average? Is the common good being served through municipal and state ordinances that aim to boost wages of the working poor? How do the productive contributions of workers factor into the determination of a living wage?

In sum, assessing whether a living wage is a just wage requires participation in a community of moral discourse, in which adult believers can gather to reflect on these and other questions in light of their experience, their faith and insights from Catholic social teaching. There is, however, always a danger of remaining stuck in the discernment process. The Living Wage movement provides a means of acting, of responding to the injustice of the enormous number of working poor, especially in a time of economic prosperity. It is an important and necessary step in the direction of becoming more loving people and creating a more just society.

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