Minumum Wage / Living Wage

Posted on February 3, 2014 by


In a post last Friday, January 31 “Bad Economics & Bad Theology: the Christian case for the minimum wage“, Professor Haymond pointed us to an article in The Week entitled: “The Christian case for raising the minimum wage” by Elizabeth Stocker. While Prof. Haymond promises commentary on Stocker’s article, I wanted to make a short comment pertaining to some of Ms. Stocker’s theological content.

I dealt with one issue with Ms. Stocker’s theological argument in a post I made last Friday “The Minimum Wage and Poverty“. She says “And at a theological level, there is an imperative to raise wages for those who don’t earn enough to provide for themselves or their families.” Nearly 90% of workers who will gain from an increase in the federal minimum wage do not live in households considered poor. So changing the minimum wage misses the target, if the target is poor families in the United States. Increasing the minimum wage will not directly help many in poverty simply because most individuals in poverty do not work for minimum wage.

I also want to comment on what I believe is Ms. Stocker’s theological foundation: The concept of the living wage. She quotes Pope Leo XIII that “…there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner.” The use of this quote in this way implies that it is something about the choice that man has made that created the economic problem. This is certainly true if one considers the choice we made in the garden of Eden. Genesis chapter 3:

17 And to Adam he said,

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”

When we made the choice to disobey God, to seek autonomy and wisdom apart from God, part of the result of that choice is what is described in the above quote from Genesis chapter 3 – humanity is going to have difficulty making a living. As a result of the curse, humanity will have economic trouble; we are never granted the expectation of always being able to gain our living from our work. We are not promised a wage high enough to support the frugal and well-behaved worker. Economics is all about how to respond to the scarcity that came up on us at the fall. We should make the wisest choices that we can in order help us best earn a living thereby reduce human poverty. Ms. Stocker further refers to the work of Father John Ryan where “he argues that not only does everyone have a right to live from the bounty of creation, but that they have the right to attain it through work.” However, in our fallen world we do not have a right to any specific amount of the bounty of creation. People need to organize their economies in ways that best reduce material want, but we are not promised a particular standard of living. Nor should we believe or have an expectation that we are owed a particular standard of living.