The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Fight for 15
Next Wednesday, April 15, protests and strikes in hundreds of cities across the United States will call for a $15 minimum wage. The "Fight for 15" organizing effort began in late 2012 with fast food workers, and has expanded to include many other low-wage jobs.
The goals of that movement are closely tied to a central principle of eco-justice ethics. Communities of faith should be visible and vocal in support of Wednesday's rallies, and in the ongoing debates about economic justice.
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The current US minimum wage is $7.25/hour, less than half of Fight for 15's target. There's little question that the federal standard is woefully inadequate.
Many states have set higher minimum wages (see the first map on the White House "Raise the Wage" site). President Obama has called for a $10.10 minimum, and has required that level in new federal service contracts. In the last few months, several large corporations have boosted their base pay, in response to strong public opinion, and because doing so is good for the business with better worker retention.
Three-quarters of Americans support an increase in the federal minimum wage to $12.50 by 2020. A few communities -- Seattle and Oakland -- already have set their minimum wage at or above that level.
The essential question of justice and decency affirms that a person who works full-time should be able to live on those earnings. That presumption is part of the eco-justice ethical norm of sufficiency, of "enough". In a world of right relationships, nobody should be trapped in extreme poverty; everyone should have the ability to meet their basic human needs.
Globally, the level of sufficiency often points to an income of at least $2 per day, and as I noted last week, we're far from meeting that goal. More than one billion of the world's people live on a dollar a day or less.
In the US, a standard for "enough" is found in the government's poverty line, which is based on family size. The 2015 figures say that a family of two needs $15,930, and a family of four needs $24,250 to get by. In 1968, when the minimum wage was at its peak of buying power, full-time work was just above the poverty guidelines for a family of three. Now that work gives an income that is below the poverty line for a family of two. By our official national guidelines, minimum wage work does not qualify as "enough" for workers with a family.
A recently release report from the Colorado Fiscal Institute breaks down the impacts of low-wage jobs in my home state. (Similar details would be true for most of the US.) For their study, "low-wage jobs are those paying less than what a full-time worker would need to live above the federal poverty line for a family of four. That annual threshold ... translated to an hourly wage of about $12 an hour." They go on to say that "more than 600,000 Coloradans -- 26.2 percent of workers -- have jobs classified as low-wage by this definition."
The most common low-wage jobs involve service work: retail sales, cashiers, personal care aides, waiters/waitresses, cooks and food service workers. These are some of the job categories that are highlighted in the Fight for 15 efforts. Adjunct faculty in colleges, universities (and, from personal experience, seminaries) also are paid at levels that mesh with low-wage standards.
Inadequate pay is not just a problem for young workers. 85% of low-wage workers in Colorado are over the age of 20 (88% nationally), and 35% of those workers are over the age of 40. But poor pay does harm youth who are striving to get an education and build a career. A college student in Alabama posted:
In 2014, the cost of attendance for Troy University was $21,833. Note that this is only the cost of attendance, not the cost of living. The figure includes transportation and housing plus an allowance for personal expenses, but tuition alone is just a couple of thousand dollars below the poverty level.
A just and compassionate society will ensure that its members can support themselves at a decent level. They will not have to work multiple jobs in order to provide for the basic needs of their family, or to get an education.
Last November, Benjamin Dueholm wrote in Christian Century: "The idea that the price of labor should be allowed to fall below the cost of life's necessities is, among other things, antithetical to the ethics of the Old Testament. It is of course possible to work more than full-time to make ends meet, and many people do just that ... But this can only be tolerated if we believe human life is meant to serve labor markets and not vice versa."
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There is another perverse factor when businesses pay wages below what in necessary and decent. Our society ends up subsidizing the business by providing welfare and other benefits for workers who can't get by on their wages. Taxpayers take up the slack for businesses that refuse to pay a living wage.
A report in Forbes a year ago estimated that Walmart's low-wage workers cost U.S. taxpayers an estimated $6.2 billion in public assistance including food stamps, Medicaid and subsidized housing. The Colorado Fiscal Institute study notes that "the cost to Colorado taxpayers of providing healthcare to low-paid workers because their employers don't provide insurance and they can't afford it on their own is about $304 million a year."
Ethicist Greg Stevens proposes that we need to hold employers to reasonable standards. As a society, we have to say, "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."
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The current minimum wage in the US is a scandal. It is neither just nor realistic.
The Fight for 15 events next Wednesday will demand a challenging minimum of $15 per hour. The political and social debate will look at whether the minimum should be $10, $12 or $15, and how quickly we can move to that goal. Faith communities will be important in that ongoing debate by keeping a focus on the moral issues of fair pay and human dignity.
Speak out on Wednesday in support of the workers, and stay involved in the efforts for fair pay through the months and years ahead.
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * 303.715.3873
Home Page: www.eco-justice.org * E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org