The Universal Living Wage
In 1906 Father John Ryan, a renowned social and economic intellectual within the Catholic Church, published a book titled A Living Wage: Its Ethical and Economic Aspects. The book introduced to America workers the idea of a guaranteed minimum pay determined by the basic costs of living and set the stage for later minimum wage legislation during the 1930’s. Over the last decade, the idea of a living wage has resurfaced as workers have become more outspoken about the inadequacies of the federal and state minimum wage levels. Living wage legislation for government workers has taken effect in major U.S. cities such as Baltimore, Los Angeles, San Jose, Detroit, Boston, and many more. This paper will discuss the moral, social, and economic implications of instituting these laws as well as labor conditions around the world and the need for guaranteed living wages in countries such as India and Mexico.
First of all, a clear definition of the living wage should be established. The Universal Living Wage Campaign Organization says that if a person works forty hours a week, a living wage should provide the worker and his/her dependents with proper nutrition, health care, housing, clothing, and transportation. Some debate has arisen around this definition though for a few reasons. First of all, the number of dependents the wage-earner must support has a huge impact on the calculation of the living wage. A wage-earner who only has to support himself can survive with a much lower wage than a wage-earner who must support a family of five for example, so how should legislation take this into account? If the idea of the living wage is to pay workers based on need, a law that provides a wage capable of supporting a large family should not be paid to a worker with only very few or no dependents. Another problem with the legislation is the possibility of multiple wage-earners in one family. If a family has two wage-earners for example, and one of them makes plenty of money to support all the dependents, should the second wage-earner benefit from a living wage even though the family is not in need? These examples point out one of the most difficult obstacles for living wage progress – the struggle to target the people who really need the support the most. Many minimum wage workers who the living wage legislation would target are teenagers who are already being supported by their parents, so should they receive a living wage when they are clearly do not need it to support themselves? In “The Living Wage Debate,” Jesse Shapiro points out:
In the modern economy, many of the people whose wages are close to the living wage mandated by law may be teenagers living in fairly well-off households. Presumably it is not an aim of policy to redistribute income to this group, but ordinances that change wages without reference to income may do just that.
Another objection to the living wage, then, is that it is...