The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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February 9, 2001 Issue
Local News

Catholic Conference urges hike in state's minimum wage

People over 18 would get $6.85

Raising Wisconsin's minimum wage is consistent with the tenets of Catholic social teaching on the dignity of workers, Wisconsin Catholic Conference executive director John Huebscher told the Senate Committee on Labor.

Huebscher's written testimony also said raising the minimum wage is in keeping with the stated principles driving welfare reform at both the state and federal levels.

Huebscher testified in support of SB-33, co-authored by State Sen. Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay) and 15 other lawmakers. The proposal calls for raising the state's minimum wage for people over age 18 from $5.15 to $6.85 an hour.

"During the debate on welfare reform, we were told it was necessary to challenge - and change - the status quo," Huebscher said. "The stagnation of wages paid to the working poor, including the minimum wage, is part of that status quo."

"One of the core principles of welfare reform is that only work should pay. The poor, we were told, must come to appreciate the value of work. A second principle is that the justice of the Wisconsin Works program will be measured by how the working poor are treated," he said. "We agree. Work should pay. It should pay better than welfare because wages are above a subsistence level, not because public assistance grants are reduced to an even lower level."

"If the wages paid to all workers, even the "working poor" are entitled to truly just wages that enable them to support families or prepare them to do so, then the words 'only work should pay' will ring true. If, however, we tell the poor that they should work, and then refuse to pay a just wage for their work, then the words 'only work should pay' will be little more than an empty platitude, and our welfare and economic policies will fail a basic test of social justice."

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that even with the most recent increase of the minimum wage to $5.15 an hour, the minimum wage in real dollars is still lower than any year between 1961 and 1985. Huebscher said the Center also reports that the purchasing power of the minimum wage is 18% below its average value in the late 1970s.

"As Pope John Paul has argued in his letter on human work, the rights of workers are closely linked to their responsibilities. The right of every person to a job is grounded in the twin duty to develop one's own God-given skills to the fullest and to provide for the needs of one's family," Huebscher said. "For this reason Catholic social teaching has long defined a just wage in terms of a 'family wage,' or that necessary to meet the needs of a family."

"In addition," he said, "a responsibility to treat workers justly is not limited to those who hire them. The government, as an institution which influences the economy, is an 'indirect employer' with a responsibility for fashioning just wage policies."

"Further, to that extent that citizens take part in and benefit from economic arrangements that define how workers are treated, we too have duties to support policies that help meet the needs of workers."

Huebscher noted that opponents of SB-33 argue that raising the minimum wage is not necessary because most minimum wage earners are teens or single workers. However, supporters point out that 40% of minimum wage earners are the sole wage earners in their families and two-thirds of teens earning the minimum wage live in low-income households.

"In terms of Catholic social teaching, those arguments are of little relevance," Huebscher said. "The fact that wage earners are younger, less unionized and less affluent than the rest of us does not weaken their claim to a just wage. Nor does it relieve us of our obligation as 'indirect employers' to pay it."

Huebscher also argued that raising the minimum wage makes sense in light of current W-2 policies toward education and training.

"If participation in education and training are not acceptable activities for W-2 clients because, as the state has determined, a poor person's preparation for school should be grounded in work, then workers ought to be able to earn enough at a job to begin financing their education and training," Huebscher concluded.

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