Is a waiter serving coffee a person, or a unit of labor? When we talk about wages, we need to distinguish two sets of arguments: those pertaining to economics, and those pertaining to human rights. Does every person have a basic right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, or only some of us?
While there are many economic arguments for and against raising the legal minimum wage, we must also recognize that serious human rights considerations are involved. The Idaho Interfaith Roundtable Against Hunger holds that to live at a basic level of nutrition and dignity is an inherent human right. We also hold that society is harmed when it accepts starvation and malnutrition for any of its citizens, and that society flourishes when citizens flourish.
America has made a commitment to provide a safety net for those living on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, a commitment that Americans from all faiths have made. Equally important to all Americans is the spirit of independence and self-sufficiency. We expect to earn our own way when we have the ability and the opportunity to do so. Further, all work has value and is worthy of respect. These are some of the human values at stake in the minimum wage debate.
The economic issues are separate. Whether higher wages will reduce poverty, cut jobs, spur or hinder economic growth are all empirical questions. We do know that the working poor comprise a large portion of those receiving public assistance. We also know that economic power has shifted from workers to large corporations and to the wealthiest among us. Improvements in the economy have benefited directors and stockholders at the expense of low-wage workers. Companies pay workers less because they can.
When businesses pay workers less than what is minimally needed to survive, the government makes up part of the difference. In this way the general public subsidizes low-wage businesses and helps boost their profits. We are actually transferring income from tax-paying citizens to corporate profits. These businesses in effect take advantage of the public's generosity and America's commitment to provide a safety net. Consumers also take advantage of low-wage workers when we buy products or services for less than the true costs of production. Workers in minimum wage industries have no bargaining power. The playing field is steeply tilted in favor of the businesses employing them. There is nothing workers can do to convince businesses in these industries to pay them a living wage. No one represents them, and no one negotiates for them.
The conversation we ought to be having is not only about the economic effects of raising the minimum wage, or the costs and benefits of government safety net programs. We should be discussing how we treat each other as neighbors and fellow human beings, and how to balance that with economic considerations. This message has been lost in the national discussion.
If we want to honor human values as well as economic values, we can either make livable wages the norm as it once was or let wages find their market levels and then make up the difference with government safety-net programs, paid for with taxes. In either case, even if things might cost more, my lifestyle ought not to be subsidized by someone else's misery.
The minimum wage problem will never fix itself as long as we want motel beds made and restaurant dishes washed. We must find a way for all work in America to sustain life.
Darcy James and Peter Lichtenstein are writing on behalf of the Idaho Interfaith Roundtable Against Hunger.