Living Wages and Moral Values

I witnessed most of the public input given at the Bloomington City Council meeting 10 days ago when the Living Wage Ordinance was debated and passed. Many arguments were advanced, pro and con, but I was struck by a major contrast between those supporting the ordinance and those opposed. Supporters tended to offer arguments that were morally and even religiously based, supplementing them with claims about the possible benefits that could follow. Opponents tended to offer arguments based on economic principles, supplementing them with moral arguments about the negative effects they foresaw. Anyone who thinks that Republicans have a lock on moral arguments, or that Democrats have no use for them, had better think again.

In the interest of full disclosure, I find the moral arguments in favor of a living wage to be decisive. I find it morally unacceptable for an adult who works full-time not to be paid enough to sustain a minimally decent standard of living. In a nutshell, that is my case for a living wage. There is something wrong–fundamentally and morally--with any economic system that does not reward full-time work, even at the lowest levels, with sufficient income to avoid poverty. I’m not talking here about some sort of hand-out or charity. I’m talking about what is just. It is unjust to be paid so little for one’s labor that one lacks the economic means to secure one’s physical existence and to flourish as a fully active and contributing member of one’s community.

Most living wage opponents never confronted this injustice head on. Their arguments tended to invoke economic theory, arguing that a living wage, or a minimum wage, must necessarily have unintended but negative effects. What’s true in theory, however, often does not prove true in fact. I have a degree in economics, so I know the discipline has some uses, but taking an adequate measure of the human condition is not one of them. All kinds of important phenomena escape the conceptual categories of conventional economics. All kinds of values, and many forms of labor, are not transacted in the marketplace. The empirical evidence does not confirm that an increase in the minimum wage will have the net effect of disadvantaging people or putting them out of work.

At least one opponent of the living wage spoke of it as a hand-out, as something unearned. It is sheer ideology to hold that people are only worth whatever the market will pay, nothing more. Living wage supporters believe that everyone deserves at least a living wage for their labors, and that this is the best way to avoid hand-outs. Social welfare benefits and free social services exist to make up the difference between resources and needs. They should exist primarily to meet the ordinary needs of those who are unable to work full-time for pay –children, some disabled or elderly, family care-givers, for example–and certain extraordinary needs. Everyone else should have pay and benefits enough to make these benefits unnecessary.

It is hard to fathom what moral compass guides those who are opposed to the idea of a living wage (almost anyone can quarrel with the specifics of a particular ordinance, but I’m thinking about those who find the whole idea mistaken). This is a matter on which Christians, if not other religious people, should agree. It was Jesus, after all, who told the story called the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. It’s one of his parables of the “kingdom.” Just so, it pictures what it would be like if human beings acted in keeping with God’s version of the way things ought to be. Many Christians find the parable hard to swallow because it challenges their economic sensibilities and violates their sense of fairness–but that is probably just the point.

Anyway, in this parable Jesus has the owner of a vineyard pay all of his workers a full day’s wage. Biblical scholars say that what he pays would have amounted to a living wage. Moreover, the owner pays this amount regardless of how long each worker has worked in his vineyard. Even those who did not work full-time get this wage. Where is the justice in that? Precisely in the fact that the workers were all paid what they needed, and not what the market or their own sense of deservingness would have dictated. The way God would have it, if Jesus is any authority, people are to be paid enough for their labor to meet their needs. It’s pretty fundamental.

Copyright 2005 by Byron C. Bangert