Living Wages: How to Match Ideals to Reality


Pursuing a universal living wage is the right course of action because no one working a full-time job should be impoverished, Dawes observes. (Image courtesy of Mister GC/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
"Wages of Sin" read the headline of a report that the Church of England does not pay all of its employees a living wage.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby called it an embarrassing reality and noted that Canterbury "was moving very, very aggressively towards paying the living wage as soon as it can."

This revelation emerged after the Church of England's House of Bishops issued a letter urging, among other things, a living wage for United Kingdom workers.

The bishops lamented "the burgeoning of in-work poverty – people who, despite working hard, cannot earn enough to live decently," in a section of the letter titled "Debt and a Humane Economy."

A living wage, they explained, is "an agreement with employers to ensure that all their staff earn a modest hourly rate that is sufficient for a full-time worker to live decently."

What does it take for workers to "live decently"? According to the London-based Living Wage Foundation, a living wage would equal £9.75 ($15.07) per hour in London and £7.95 ($12.29) outside of London.

In the U.S., increasing the minimum wage for hourly workers was a primary focus during the November 2014 midterm elections, with Brian Kaylor reporting that four states approved a minimum wage increase.

Steve Copley, a United Methodist minister in Arkansas, expressed excitement about the increase for "hard working Arkansans … in order to help them make ends meet."

Helping low-wage earners "make ends meet" through increasing the minimum wage is a consistent message among supporters.

For example, in his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama urged Congress to raise the minimum wage, stating, "Nothing helps families make ends meet like higher wages."

Minimum wage increases are needed, but proponents must acknowledge that the distance between a higher minimum wage and a living wage – the actual costs to "make ends meet" – is significant.

MIT's living wage calculator, part of a Living Wage Project (LWP), allows users to find the living wage in their states.

Authors of an LWP report made clear that these figures represent the income necessary for "a step up from poverty as measured by the poverty thresholds."

Money for entertainment, savings or retirement investments is not included in the data, the authors emphasized, calling the living wage "a minimum income standard that if met draws a very fine line between the financial independence of the working poor and the need to seek out public assistance."

Tennessee's minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. A living wage would be $8.84 per hour for a single adult and $18.57 for two adults and two children.

The District of Columbia has the highest minimum wage at $9.50 per hour as of July 2014, increasing to $10.50 in July 2015.

Yet, a living wage would require $13.67 per hour for a single adult and $24.92 for two adults with two children.

Considering the larger economic impact of wage increases is essential.

While opponents often assert that a higher cost for low-wage workers reduces hiring and increases unemployment, studies have produced ambiguous, sometimes conflicting, results. In brief, there are both significant costs and substantial benefits.

Wal-Mart's recent decision to increase its minimum hourly pay and to expand employee training is a case in point.

The move will cost an additional $1 billion in 2015, but the company believes it will increase employee retention, lead to more engaged workers and improve customer service.

Moving toward a living wage to enable full-time employees to live self-sufficient, food-secure daily lives is a noble goal, but the process is complicated and costly. Well-meaning advocates should not ignore the economic implications.

The report on the Church of England's pay scale reveals the difficulty of matching ideals to reality.

As Welby noted in lamenting the low-paying jobs, "It means raising more than an extra £200,000 [$309,111] a year" for Canterbury to pay every employee a living wage.

The Bible is clear about caring for the most vulnerable members of society (see Psalm 72; Luke 4:18-19; Matthew 25; James 2:6-16).

"The poor you will always have with you" (Deuteronomy 15:11) is a critique of a society failing to sufficiently care for those in need, preceding a call to "open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land."

Pursuing a universal living wage is the right course of action because no one working a full-time job should be impoverished.

Ensuring that everyone in society can support themselves at least at a subsistence level should be a moral imperative for people of faith.

Nevertheless, preachers, activists, politicians and others promoting a living wage must do so with an honest realization of the significant challenges – not the least of which is financial.

As the Church of England discovered, matching ideals with actions can be a challenging endeavor – even for the best intentioned – making transparency, humility, realism and patience essential.

Zach Dawes is the managing editor for EthicsDaily.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ZachDawes_Jr.

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Tags: Church of England, Living Wage, Minimum Wage, Poverty, Zach Dawes


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