Governments exist to serve the common good, not to make a profit. Our federal government can serve the common good by passing legislation, such as increasing the minimum wage, but can also do so by acting as a model employer. That’s what President Joe Biden accomplished the other day with an executive order: henceforth, firms that bid for federal contracts must commit to pay every worker at least $15 per hour.
The right to a living wage is one of the earliest and most basic premises of modern Catholic Social Teaching. Pope Leo XIII, in Rerum Novarum (1891), explicitly noted that every worker deserves a wage sufficient to support him or herself – and that if the labor market did not deliver this, society had to step in and make sure it happens.
The federal minimum wage remains stuck at $7.25 per hour, a measly $15K per year for a full-time employee. That’s not enough to support a worker and his or her family in ANY state in the country. Worker justice advocates have called for legislation phasing in a $15 per hour minimum wage. Legislation to do so has passed the House but fell short in the Senate where a minority of opponents can block a proposal using the filibuster.
Uncle Sam is the nation’s largest employer, and it’s been estimated that at any given time, three or four million US workers are employed by federal contractors. The president’s executive order ensures that going forward, all of these workers receive a just (if modest) wage of at least $15 per hour. The White House doesn’t even think it will be a net cost; after all, better wages for the lowest-income workers reduce turnover and increase productivity, which will mitigate any increased cost of contract acquisition. But even if we need to pay a bit more as taxpayers it’s the right thing to do.
And the Catholic Labor Network will continue to advocate for an increase in the minimum wage to guarantee a living wage to ALL workers.