The Bare Minimum: Moral questions in push for higher federal minimum wage

While Congress has stalled on adopting an increase in the federal minimum wage, steps are being taken across the country to boost the income of low-wage workers. From Massachusetts and Vermont to Seattle and San Francisco, state legislators and city councils have either acted on or are negotiating minimum wage hikes. Despite concern from opponents to any wage increase, most legislators have come to see that the likely benefit to workers outweighs the cost to businesses.

President Barack Obama, not waiting for Congress to act, followed through on his February executive order by announcing on June 12 rules for raising the wages of workers under federal contracts to a minimum of $10.10 per hour. The higher wage level for about 250,000 employees takes effect in January. Meanwhile, a new report from Oxfam America called for Congress to end the gridlock and adopt an increase in the federal minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $10.10 per hour with an index to inflation.

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On average, about 40,000 low-wage workers in each congressional district across the country would benefit if the minimum wage were increased, said Raymond C. Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America during a teleconference to release the report. "If you believe in stimulation of growth in the local economy and becoming attractive to local investors in your district, then you'd be supportive of this," Offenheiser said.

In advocating for the hike, the Oxfam report estimated that if the minimum wage were adjusted to align with historic values, it would be "well over $10."

The legislative actions and new round of advocacy come with one basic message: Anyone who works full time should not live in poverty.

Opponents of minimum wage measures have said a wage increase would cost jobs and reduce any growth the U.S. economy is experiencing.

At the current federal minimum wage, a worker receives $15,080 annually. For 2014, the federal poverty guideline for a family of three is $19,790. That predicament for low-wage workers led Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, to repeatedly call for federal minimum wage hike. In a Jan. 8 letter to the U.S. Senate, Archbishop Wenski and Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, endorsed legislation raising the minimum wage.

"The current federal minimum wage falls short ... for its failure to provide sufficient resources for individuals to form and support families. ... Workers deserve a just wage that allows them to live in dignity, form and support families and contribute to the common good," the letter said.

In looking at the federal poverty guidelines and seeing the inaction at the federal level, legislators in some communities have decided to act.

In Seattle, the City Council passed a law in that would gradually raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour over the next few years with an index for inflation. San Francisco is considering legislation that would raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2018. In Massachusetts, both houses of the Legislature agreed to raise the wage from $8 per hour to $11 per hour. And Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a bill June 9 that calls for the minimum wage to rise to $10.50 per hour by 2018 and be indexed to inflation thereafter.

In Rhode Island, however, the Democratic-controlled state Legislature voted to prohibit municipalities from enacting any minimum wage measure even as the Providence city council is considering an ordinance that would raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour for employees at large hotels.

Even at $15 an hour, a full-time worker would make a bit more than $30,000 annually. While that may be sufficient in Des Moines, Iowa, in more expensive enclaves such as Seattle, San Francisco or Boston, families still will be faced with tight budgets as they deal with the overall high cost of living.

During the Oxfam teleconference, Father Snyder cited the moral questions facing the country and the quality of life of low-wage workers. "We support increasing the minimum wage because it is the right thing to do and more importantly it is the just thing to do," Father Snyder explained.

"People who work fulltime should not have to live in poverty," he said, noting that at Catholic Charities agencies across the country working people receive assistance with food, rent, utility payments and other necessities.

"They contribute to the nation's current economic prosperity yet many of them live at or below the poverty line," Father Snyder told listeners.

Echoing Father Snyder, Sherry Stewart Deutschmann, CEO of LetterLogic, a 12-year-old mail services company in Nashville, Tennessee, said she believes paying a living wage is better for business and her employees. New employees at the company start at $14 per hour and Deutschmann said she has a profit-sharing plan in place and offers a generous benefits package that includes fully paid health insurance and tuition reimbursement.

"As a small-business owner, I never understood the logic and other business owners arguing against increasing the minimum wage. Increasing the minimum wage is better for business," Deutschmann explained. "I knew I could not have quality service if [employees] are thinking the lights might not be on when they got home or they could not pay the rent," she said.

With the November election looming and Republicans hoping to gain control of the Senate, the chances of any major piece of legislation—such as a minimum wage bill—passing is practically nil. Under such a scenario, any further movement on minimum wage measures will be at the state and municipal level. At that level, it will be up to state Catholic conferences to weigh in.

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J Cabaniss
3 years 6 months ago
Whatever one thinks about the economic impact of raising the minimum wage, one thing ought to be obvious: it is not a moral question. It is not the "right" or "just" thing to do and opposing it is neither wrong nor unjust. It is precisely the fact that this is not a moral issue that makes the involvement of clergy in the debate a mistake. Their comments contribute nothing to the substance of the discussion but simply lower its tone by essentially labeling as evil those who question the economic sense of high minimum wages. Perhaps it makes sense to argue that wages at the bottom of the scale should not be tied to the value of the work but rather to the needs of the employee, but that's not an obvious conclusion. Nor is it obvious why the deficiency in a worker's salary should be made up by employers like McDonald's and Bunkey's Car Wash rather than by subsidies from the city, state, or federal treasury. What ought to be obvious, however, is that it is not sinful to question the economic sense of high minimum wages, despite assertions from Bp. Wenski and Fr. Snyder to the contrary.
Jude Graham
3 years 5 months ago
I'm ready to see the American Church throw it's weight into the issue, with the same forcefulness it used during the industrial revolution.
J Cabaniss
3 years 5 months ago
Why? The question of what impact higher minimum wages have is purely economic; there is no moral component to it. If it was obvious that raising the minimum wage was a net benefit to society then there would be no valid excuse to oppose it, but it is not only not obvious but the argument that it is harmful is at least as strong. There is no justification for the church to involve herself in purely political issues and every reason to avoid it. What is implied when a bishop comes out in support of raising the minimum wage? It is seen not as an economic judgment but a moral one, and that it is a sin to take the opposite position. I'm prepared to entertain the argument that my opposition may be ill advised, but I absolutely reject the idea that it is sinful ... but if it is not sinful then what is the justification for the bishop's involvement?
Marie Rehbein
3 years 5 months ago
You are assuming that all moral guidance offered by the Catholic Church reduces down to classifying everything as venial sin, mortal sin, or OK to do. The idea that the minimum wages is so low right now that it does not allow hard working people to support themselves, let alone the families the Catholic Church says God wants them to have, does have a moral element to consider. To take this to the extreme, it might be possible to see the low level of compensation as nothing more than a technical accommodation to the anti-slavery law.
J Cabaniss
3 years 5 months ago
I accept that you believe a higher minimum wage would be beneficial, but you don't seem able to accept that others believe it would be harmful. This question: "Will increasing the minimum wage be helpful or harmful?" includes no moral calculation. It is surely true that those who receive more money will be better off, but it is equally true that some people will lose their jobs because their labor is not worth the higher cost to the employer. Again, the debate here is not between those who want to help the poor and those who don't, but between those who disagree about the impact of a particular action. It is not about whether to help but what to do, and the church provides no guidance in determining the economic impact of high minimum wages.
Marie Rehbein
3 years 5 months ago
I can accept that some people believe that raising the minimum wage would mean less money for the employer. I can also accept that some people believe that paying people enough to make them ineligible for government benefits is bad for the so-called free market. What I was disagreeing with was your position that the Church is out of place in saying that raising the minimum wage is the correct solution to the problem of the working poor. If someone supports raising the minimum wage, it is possible that he or she takes that position because he or she believes that it is the right thing to do. Someone else might take that position because they have calculated out that it would lead to economic growth. If the Catholic Church takes a position on the issue and says it takes that position because it is the right thing to do, this is different from mandating that all Catholics take the same position, which is what you are taking the opinion to mean.
J Cabaniss
3 years 5 months ago
If the church takes the position that raising the minimum wage is the right thing to do, why is that not the same as saying it is the position all Catholics should take? If it is the morally correct choice then how could we not be obliged to take it? This is what is implied when a bishop expresses his opinion on the issue. Since this is a prudential matter with no moral choices involved, however, this implication is incorrect. What we have seen of course is not that the church has taken a position but only that random bishops have come out in support of raising minimum wages. The question "What are the economic implications of raising the minimum wage?" is not something the church can or will address, the actions of some of her bishops notwithstanding.
Marie Rehbein
3 years 5 months ago
Your understanding of utterances coming from those representing the Catholic Church is amazingly simplistic. I am caught between thinking that you are not Catholic and posting here for the purpose of weakening potential opposition to a political position you are being paid to represent and thinking that you were brainwashed at an early age to defer unquestioningly to authority and so you have never matured in your relationship with the Church. A position that all Catholics should take is usually quite clearly stated by a pope speaking "infallibly".
J Cabaniss
3 years 5 months ago
Statements from bishops on this matter represent either their moral or their economic conclusions. If their position is based on an economic analysis, why should it be given more weight than the analyses of actual economists? Why should we care what positions they take? On the other hand, if this represents a moral conclusion then how can you suggest it is something we may ignore? My point is that personal opinions about the advisability of raising the minimum wage cannot be considered moral guidance since there is no moral issue involved, and because there is no moral issue involved it is a mistake for the clergy to imply otherwise by offering their opinions on the matter. (That you are now analyzing me rather than my arguments suggests you have depleted your supply of useful rebuttals.)
Marie Rehbein
3 years 5 months ago
I can suggest it is something we should consider, but not necessarily agree with. That is different from ignoring it. I think that there most certainly is a moral issue involved in determining whether there should be a minimum wage and what amount that minimum wage should be. If it were a simple economic calculation, there would most certainly not be a minimum wage, because there is no economic reason to be concerned about any individual worker. The economy would hum along with someone ready to step in whenever someone succumbed to his poverty. The whole idea of treating workers with consideration for their well-being is a moral issue, while ambition to amass wealth drives economic ventures without concern for workers, environment, or future generations. I don't find much to analyze in your comments in that they seem to be nothing more than the untrue assertion that moral argument does not apply to the question.

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