Minimum wage movement

By Sam Lucero | The Compass | March 9, 2016

Make it a living wage

A push to make living wages a national priority is once again gaining momentum. According to the Economic Policy Institute, 14 states raised their minimum wage at the beginning of 2016. Although some states’ wage increases were small, all of them exceed the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

“All together, these increases will provide 4.6 million workers over $3.5 billion in higher annual wages,” reported the institute.

Last week, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown made history when she signed into law a new minimum wage. It is the first state to implement a tiered minimum wage system which sets different hourly wages for different parts of the state. According to press reports, by 2022, Oregon’s minimum wage will be $14.75 per hour in the Portland area. Midsize counties will increase to $13.50 and rural areas will increase to $12.50.

Oregon’s current minimum wage is now $9.25 and the first increases will begin next July.

New York State is also in the midst of a political battle to increase its minimum wage. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has introduced a proposal to raise the state’s minimum wage from its current $9 per hour to $15 per hour. The campaign received an unexpected boost when Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York City wrote a column for the New York Daily News on Feb. 24 supporting the wage increase.

Cardinal Dolan cited Catholic social teaching and papal writings to fortify his argument.

“A lot of people ask me, ‘Does the church have a position on the minimum-wage issue?’ I reply, ‘No. But she does have a position on a living wage: that every worker deserves one!’” he wrote.

While Cardinal Dolan admitted that some people are opposed to the increase, he said it is possible to find common ground. “The Bible teaches that workers deserve their pay, and that laborers cannot be reduced to objects to be used, abused and thrown away when no longer needed,” he wrote.

Unfortunately, this moral argument has not persuaded leaders in 21 states (including Wisconsin), which settle for the federal minimum wage of $7.25.

Some might argue that minimum wage jobs are filled by young people entering the workforce. But data from the Economic Policy Institute paints a different picture.

Who are today’s minimum wage earners? According to the institute:

  • 89 percent are over age 20;
  • 37 percent are over 40;
  • 28 percent are parents;
  • 57 percent are full-time workers;
  • 56 percent are women.

The EPI estimates that 30 percent of the American workforce (41.2 million) receives public assistance and nearly half of these (19.3 million) are full-time workers. Due to low-paying wages, these workers, who earn up to $12.16 an hour, must rely on public assistance to make ends meet.

These are all indications that we need to shift our understanding of minimum wage and view it as a living wage.

While visiting Mexico last month, Pope Francis told Mexicans in Ciudad Juarez that negotiating peacefully in a competitive world for better wages is not easy, “but it is worse to allow the competitive world to determine the destiny of the people.”

The same holds true in the United States. Profits cannot be given more importance than people or what the church calls the common good. The move to raise the federal minimum wage is one way to place the common good before profits and avoid what Cardinal Dolan describes as equating laborers to objects that can be “abused and thrown away when no longer needed.”

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