Bring Back the Living Wage

The concept of the minimum wage stems directly from the concept of the living wage, which was brought forward about a century ago by Christian groups, namely the Protestant social gospel movements as well as what evolved into what today is called Catholic Social Teaching. The concept of fair wages is also an ancient concept in Judaism.

The living wage concept was that pay for full time work should be enough so that a wage earner can feed, clothe, and have enough to take care of one’s family.

This isn’t a new thought, that fair wages should be enough to care of one’s family. It’s a very, very old one, as old as Western culture.

However, things changed with the industrial revolution. The concept of fair wages was vigorously denied during the Gilded Age. It’s easy to say that people did well without a minimum wage once upon a mythical time when worker bees happily slaved away for the benevolent industrialist. I don’t think, though, that the people who were paid well below wages required to feed, clothe, and house their children would agree with such a sentiment.

This concept of the living wage was therefore a Judeo-Christian reaction, really, to people being paid at wages so low that they and their families didn’t have enough to live in dignity. The fact is that the vast majority of businesses during the Gilded Age of the 18th century simply didn’t care if their workers were well fed, well clothed, and so on. Can anyone deny, in today’s Gilded Age of predatory capitalism, where work is outsourced to the lowest overseas bidder, that anything has changed in this regard?

In fact, when I visited Salem, Massachusetts a few years ago, the town hall presented some stunning facts about fatality rates in 19th century factories. The rates were close to 25% in some cases. Sound familiar to today’s overseas sweatshops that get us our neat ipods and smartphones? (personal note: verify that 25% figure. I’m not sure if that’s exactly correct- but the percentage was HIGH).

So…the living wage…the minimum wage…is an modern application of an ancient Judeo-Christian value to help promote human dignity by ensuring fair wages in a modern, post-industrial age. Keeping in mind that conservatism wishes to *guard* ancient and time-tested values, it’s quite accurate to state that the minimum wage promotes the conservative value of fair wages.

When I hear bubbleheads like Michelle Bachmann blather on about killing the minimum wage,  I well know that what she is saying is:

1) Completely at odds with the religion she wears on her sleeve

2) Converse to her professed conservative values

3) Economically naive, as nations that enforce a dignified minimum wage have far more resilient and dynamic economies and far less issue with inequitable wealth models.

So, like our forebears a century ago, I advocate that the minimum wage be updated with the age-tested concept of the *living wage*.  That it be set to what is required for people to feed, clothe, shelter and care for one’s family.

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