A Job Should Keep You Out of Poverty, Not Trap You In It!
"Our economy is stronger when we reward an honest day's work with honest wages…no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty, [we must] raise the federal minimum wage." –President Obama, State of the Union Address, February 12, 2013”
On June 25, 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the Fair Labor Standards Act, creating a minimum wage, overtime, and basic labor standards. Seventy-five years later, these core labor protections are still the cornerstone of the U.S. economy. This bill was instrumental in ensuring that workers, especially those who are most vulnerable to unscrupulous employers, can make a living and provide for their families.
Four years ago today, the last increase from the 2007 bill to raise the federal minimum wage took effect, bringing the federal minimum wage to its current $7.25 per hour. People who work full-time at a minimum wage job, earn $15,080 per year. This means that a full-time minimum-wage worker cannot even meet federal poverty level standards if they have any dependent family members. For instance, for a family of three (one adult, two children), the poverty threshold is $19,530. But minimum wage work has not always trapped workers in poverty. Indeed, the minimum wage used to grow in relative proportion to productivity and size of the economy. In 1968, the height of the minimum wage’s value, the wage floor was the equivalent of $10.67 in today’s dollars.
Currently there are bills in Congress to address this injustice -- the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013 (S. 460 / H.R. 1010), sponsored by Senator Tom Harkin [D-IA] Representative George Miller [D-CA]. This bill seeks to bring the wage up to $10.10 per hour, and index it to inflation, so that low-wage workers will see some of the benefits of the economic growth that has been reaching only those earners at the very top of the income scale in recent years. The Fair Minimum Wage Act will raise the wage from $7.25 per hour to $10.10 in three steps of 95 cents each over 2 years. After that, the minimum wage will see annual, automatic cost-of-living increases, tied to inflation. And perhaps even more important, these bills will break the 22-year freeze on the minimum wage for tipped workers, which has stagnated at $2.13 per hour since 1991. These bills will bring the tipped wage up, in 95-cent increments, until it is 70% of the regular minimum wage, after which it will also be tied to inflation.
These are some essential steps toward spreading out some of the economic gains in our economy, and those who may find this increase precipitous, should note that, even after full enactment of the wage increase, which could not possibly take place until 2015 at the earliest, the annual salary of those working a full-time minimum-wage job will be just $21,008, which still leaves low-income families too vulnerable. The minimum wage is intended to act a wage floor in the labor market, but we have a long way to go before achieving living wages for all.
The Presbyterian Church has a long history of supporting the rights of workers to earn fair wages, good benefits, and safe working conditions. Indeed, in recognizing the value and dignity of work, the 2008 Social Creed for the 21st Century, adopted by the PC(USA) and our ecumenical partners, says:
“In faith, responding to our Creator, we celebrate the full humanity of each woman, man, and child, all created in the divine image as individuals of infinite worth, by working for…
- Employment for all, at a family-sustaining living wage, with equal pay for comparable work.
- The rights of workers to organize, and to share in workplace decisions and productivity growth.
- Protection from dangerous working conditions, with time and benefits to enable full family life.
Indeed, our biblical tradition also reminds us that the livelihood of workers is a responsibility of the community, for the prophet Malachi, echoing earlier laws and prophets, prophesies, “Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against… those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.” (3:5)
The system of low-wage work in the U.S. ensures that those who are vulnerable and have little will stay that way. Low-wage work cannot support a family, nor provide workers with the necessary supports to climb out of poverty. A job should keep workers out of poverty, not in it!
As part of his salvific ministry, Jesus said, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” In the tradition of the Savior who came to bring good news to the disheartened, dispirited, and disenfranchised, we must support social justice for all God’s children. Write to you Members of Congress today. Four years is too long without a raise. Now is the time to raise the minimum wage.