The Working Catholic: Wages

The Working Catholic: Wages
by Bill Droel

The living wage movement improves family life for targeted workers but has little spillover effect on wages, employment rates or poverty in the wider region, concludes researcher Benjamin Sosnaud in Social Service Review (1427 E. 60th St., Chicago, IL 60637).
In June 1993 BUILD (2439 Maryland Ave., Baltimore, MD 21218; www.buildiaf.org) launched what is considered the first living wage campaign. It came out of frustration over the federal minimum wage; fixed at $7.25 since 2009. Many leaders in BUILD, active in their churches, observed growing use of church-based soup kitchens and pantries by the working poor. These church members concluded that minimum wage jobs at $7.25 were not sufficient to escape poverty. Since the 1993 campaign, several cities, towns or counties have enacted an ordinance that requires a living wage for its own employees and those of its contractors. However, a living wage ordinance leaves the federal minimum in place for other workers and, as Sosnaud details, it does not encourage other employers to improve wages.
Thanks to Fight for $15 (www.fightfor15.org) and to several other groups the positives of the living wage campaign are now extended. A national restaurant chain, for example, can agree to raise the minimum for all its workers. And notably, there are campaigns to raise the minimum across the board in specific locales. In fact, at least 37 cities or counties, plus California and New York have a local minimum wage that supersedes the federal. Similar legislation is pending in four more states.
Contrary to the Republican philosophy of local control, several Republican-dominated state legislatures are blocking state or municipal wage ordinances with what is called preemption bills. The pushback includes attempts to reverse existing wage ordinances.

Add a longstanding Catholic term to this discussion: a family wage. This concept somewhat differs from federal minimum wage, living wage and local wage. Saint John Paul II (1920-2005), among several Catholic commentators, defines a family wage as “a single salary given to the head of the family…sufficient for the needs of the family without the spouse having to take up gainful employment outside the home.” Interestingly, even though the family wage principle is found in official Church documents, it is mostly a contribution from the United States. It was promoted by Msgr. John A. Ryan (1869-1945) of Minnesota. See for example his book, A Living Wage, MacMillan, 1906.
Nowadays, Catholic moralists have backed away from the family wage in favor of calls for job training, tax reform, affordable day care and wage increases. That’s because proposals for a family wage sound sexist. In itself the principle does not say only men should work outside the home and women must be full-time homemakers. It does not say that a family wage cannot be supplemented with the earnings of the second parent. Further, it applies equally to single-parent families. In some applications of the family wage certain allotments count toward the total. For example, several countries have a family allowance program in recognition of children as a social resource. These allotments are not related to the family’s regular income; they are not like welfare.

Those who desire justice might focus on one or more issues: real estate practices, civil liberties for gays, social service delivery, criminal court reform, treatment of mentally ill and many more topics. In Catholicism justice begins and ends with wages. “In every case a just wage is the concrete means of verifying the justice of the whole socioeconomic system,” writes John Paul II.

Take a hospital as one example. Its managers and board members are good people who contribute to the wider community whenever possible. Its workers sign-on with eyes wide open. Communication throughout the hospital flows as openly as possible. Employee birthdays are routinely celebrated. The hospital matches employee contributions to a pension plan to a degree. Grievances are treated seriously. There is, all things considered, a minimum of gossip. The wages for some workers, however, do not meet the criteria of a living wage or a family wage. Keep in mind: everyone has good intentions—administrators, supervisors, janitors, technicians, security guards, everyone. That hospital, Catholicism says, is operating unjustly and contributing to an unjust economy… Wait a minute.
Moralizing is counter-productive. The hospital in this example is part of insurance reimbursement systems with rates that don’t always cover the hospital expenses. In fact, our hypothetical hospital serves many poor patients whose insurance is minimal. The excellent doctors and nurses at our hospital are free to take their services to a “competitor.” Our hospital does not control costs for new equipment. In other words, to achieve just wages many sectors of the economy must improve. One executive here and another there can lead by example, but each is powerless without efforts across the industry and maybe around the globe.
Moralizing is worthless. Justice starts this afternoon with a small group. The ripples of justice gradually find one another to eventually form a tidal wave. Meanwhile, tomorrow afternoon another small group devises a plan for improvement and likewise seeks other groups interested in their plan.

Droel is editor of John Paul II’s Gospel of Work (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $8)

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