“Our nation, so richly endowed with natural resources and with a capable and industrious population, should be able to devise ways and means of insuring to all our able-bodied working men and women a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.” ~ Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1937
From the quote above anyone can see that a fight for a living wage has a long history in American politics. It is NOT a new fangled idea invented by Bernie Sanders supporters, only pushed forward by “Socialists.” Its origins are over a century old and were first created out of a Christian concern for the well being of ordinary people. In modern, industrialized times its origins come from the Catholic Church.
Since I was raised as a Catholic, I thought it might be important to talk to everyone, but especially with Catholics about the history of the Church’s position on “the living wage.” I was lucky to find an article in America, The Jesuit Review that covered much of what I had learned over the years about the Church’s stance. This article, titled The Living Wage and Catholic Social Teaching, written by William P. Quigley, was published on August 28, 2006. Here is the link if you want to read the article on your own. https://www.americamagazine.org/…/living-wage-and-catholic-… I am going to paraphrase as well as directly quote this article below while adding clarifying observations on the Church’s stance. What I hope is that everyone reading this post will walk away knowing the long history and involvement of America’s largest Christian sect on “the living wage.”
In 1891 Pope Leo XIII, in his papal letter Rerum Novarum, speaks about the right for every worker to receive wages sufficient to provide for a family. This is the first iteration of this moral stance and is where we get the first use of the phrase “a living wage” by a world leader. From the very beginning of a global understanding of what “a living wage” was, the concept was defined as being not just enough money to keep a person alive, but more. This was a moral break from a practice of slave like wages perpetrated on laborers who were often paid just enough to stay alive. My grandfather worked on the docks in Cuba for food and what passed for board at the age of twelve. We are all familiar with the song, Sixteen Tons, whose refrain says:
“You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don't you call me, 'cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store”
In Pope Leo XIII’s mind a living wage was enough to provide for a wife and children. Looking back we now know that Pope Leo’s concern was a reaction to the appalling conditions found in industrialized cities of the end of the 19th century, which were, the horrid dilapidated tenements and general squaller that the working people were living in while the owner class was experiencing unimaginable wealth.
In 1931 Pope Pius XI wrote in the Quadragesimo Anno bolstering the position of the Church championed by Pope Leo XIII. He wrote in essence that Christian morality requires that the worker must be paid a wage sufficient to support him and his family.
In 1937 Franklin Delano Roosevelt with his A Fair Day’s Pay for a Fair Day’s Work speech secularizes the need for living wages. He realizes that the Great Depression had put enormous downward pressure on wages, and that there is no recovering the economy unless workers have more money to spend into the economy.
In 1940 in their Statement on Church and Social Order, the U.S. Catholic bishops expand clarify what a living wage is and reenforce the need for a living wage:
“The first claim of labor, which takes priority over any claim of the owners to profits, respects the right to a living wage. By the term living wage we understand a wage sufficient not merely for the decent support of the workingman himself but also of his family. A wage so low that it must be supplemented by the wage of wife and mother or by the children of the family before it can provide adequate food, clothing, and shelter together with essential spiritual and cultural needs cannot be regarded as a living wage. Furthermore, a living wage means sufficient income to meet not merely the present necessities of life but those of unemployment, sickness, death, and old age as well.”
“In 1961, in the encyclical Mater et Magistra, Pope John XXIII responded to that claim and proclaimed that a living wage was clearly a justice issue:
[“]We therefore consider it our duty to reaffirm that the remuneration of work is not something that can be left to the laws of the marketplace; nor should it be a decision left to the will of the more powerful. It must be determined in accordance with justice and equity; which means that workers must be paid a wage which allows them to live a truly human life and to fulfill their family obligations in a worthy manner.[”]
In 1981 Pope John Paul II went further. In On Human Work he wrote that payment of living wages was a critical criterion for determining the legitimacy of the entire economic system:
[“]Hence in every case a just wage is the concrete means of verifying the whole socioeconomic system and, in any case, of checking that it is functioning justly. It is not the only means of checking, but it is a particularly important one and in a sense the key means.[“]”
In 1986 the U.S. Catholic bishops said:
“The first line of attack against poverty must be to build and sustain a healthy economy that provides employment opportunities at just wages for all adults who are able to work. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, refusing to pay just wages, even if allowed by law, is a violation of the Seventh Commandment.”
Today the Church continues with this stance, but here in the United States the baton has been passed to a new sector. Bernie Sanders at one time was almost the loan voice calling in from the wilderness about a living wage. He chose to simplify the message and just say, “The current federal minimum wage is starvation pay and must become a living wage. We must increase it to $15 an hour over the next several years.” He could have put forward a fully nuanced argument, and in interviews over time he has filled in with great detail the full breadth of the idea, but by simply stating the goal of $15 an hour, it serves as a mark that everyone can understand and reach.
Opponents of the living wage concept argue that wage levels should be left to the market. I say, let history speak for itself. Laissez-faire, which is to let markets work it out, brought us the horrible poverty and squaller that the industrial world found in its cities at the end of the 19th century. Those conditions lead to Pope Leo XIII’s letter on the living wage at that time. Unions played an important roll in improving work conditions in the first half of the 20th century. However, today unions have lost much of their power. Manufacturing jobs have been moved overseas or automated out of existence. The Federal Government has stepped in with workplace regulations covering workplace safety and minimum wages, something formerly done by unions. In the market a period of low opportunity such as in a recession the high availability of labor compared to the amount of work available leads to the owner class taking advantage and depressing wages. Out of desperation the working class will take those jobs even when they don’t provide for a living. A living minimum wage must be set by the Federal Government, and it should be indexed to change with inflation automatically as well as being augmented to take into account differences in the cost of living in different parts of the United States.