Thursday, May 01, 2008

Fair Wage Engenders Basic Human Dignity

By C. Melissa Snarr, Ph.D.

The United States first introduced minimum-wage legislation in the midst of the Great Depression. Recognizing the failures of unregulated markets, the nation chose to draw a moral line below which no market economy could fall; desperate people should not be required to work at desperation wages.

Citizen-emboldened politicians understood taking advantage of people's economic vulnerability was morally unconscionable, even amid economic turmoil.

Minimum-wage legislation secured a simple principle for the regulation of markets: A job should keep you out of poverty, not keep you in it. But in the past 40 years, elite-driven politicians eroded this principle as they refused to index the wage with consumer-price demands. The minimum wage will rise this year to $6.55 an hour, but it would take $9.70 an hour to reach its buying power in 1968 -- the year the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. died supporting Memphis sanitation workers' fair-wage struggle.

The living-wage movement seeks to restore a basic moral principle to the ongoing regulation of markets. People working a full-time job should be paid enough money to secure decent housing, food, transportation and health care for their family. In other words, people should be able to "live" in the most basic way on a minimum wage. In Davidson County, this means Metro government employees would need $10.36 an hour to avoid choosing between food, rent, electricity or doctor visits for their children (and that excludes savings, dining out and entertainment). Similarly, a worker living in Memphis would need $12 an hour without health insurance or $10 if health care were provided.

Contrary to common myths, 70 percent of minimum-wage earners in the U.S. are adults, many with families. These are not starter jobs for wealthy suburban teens. Wages are not depressed by undocumented workers but by corporate greed (states with the largest influx of undocumented workers have actually seen increases in jobs for documented workers and comparable stagnation of wages). As the Fiscal Policy Institute and others have documented, the number of small businesses and overall employment rate actually grew in states requiring wages higher than the federal minimum.

While worker productivity has increased steadily over the past several decades and CEO salaries have skyrocketed, wages have not. This is a moral and economic issue that requires government action.

In 1968, the Memphis sanitation workers carried signs that said simply, "I AM A MAN." They knew living wages were signals of basic human dignity. An employee who works multiple jobs to make ends meet has little time for family, kids, church or community. Homework help, neighborhood watches and volunteering fade under the demands of basic survival. We all lose in that erosion of community.

As a person of faith I must note that all religious traditions address the dignity workers deserve. Nations are judged by their treatment of the poor. God even rejects the worship of those who build their wealth on the backs of the poor. Created in the image of God, we are called to honor that image in the other -- and that includes what we pay for the work our nation requires.

Dr. Snarr is an Assistant Professor of Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt University Divinity School.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the Tennessee Editorial Forum. 5/08

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