A Step On The Path To Economic Justice

July 24, 2009|By Ken Brooker-Langston

Today, the minimum wage rises to $7.25 an hour, boosting more than 2 million hardworking employees one step up the ladder of economic opportunity.

The working poor needed this increase. Minimum-wage workers have fallen further and further behind the cost of living. In today's dollars, adjusting by the Consumer Price Index, the 1968 minimum wage would be equivalent to $10.08, half again as much as yesterday's minimum wage of $6.55. So compared to where we were yesterday, today's increase is a very welcome step in the right direction.

Nevertheless, this increase still falls short of what is needed. Nowhere in the United States - and certainly not in a generally high-cost state like Maryland - can anyone cover bare subsistence bills on the minimum wage, even at $7.25 an hour.

It is often said that the best anti-poverty program is a job. But what if that job locks the employee into poverty? Consider a relative of mine who works for minimum wage in a grocery store, as does her boyfriend. They'd like to get married and get a house together and live some small piece of the American dream. But they cannot even begin to afford it. And so, both of them live with their parents - who are on fixed incomes - and wait for what they hope will be a better day. But on the current minimum wage, it is doubtful that day will ever come.

Opponents of a livable minimum wage claim that jobs will be eliminated by employers unable to pay the increased wage. This argument falls apart under scrutiny. Economists at the University of California at Berkeley compared job availability for teenagers in metropolitan areas that fall on two sides of a state line, with the lower federal minimum wage in one state and a new, higher state minimum on the other. They found employers on both sides of the line just as likely to hire teenagers and no net loss of teen employment on the side with the higher minimum wage.

Similarly, broader studies show that during the last two recessions, there were actually more jobs created in the states with minimum wages above the federal level than in states where wages remained lower, according to the Economic Policy Institute. And the majority of minimum wage workers are not teenagers; many are women supporting families.

Yes, some small businesses will strain to meet payroll after today's raise. But far more small businesses will gain customers and revenue now that 2.2 million workers have $5.5 billion more to spend in the coming year.

Beyond the economic arguments for an increase, there is a moral argument. Every major religious tradition finds poverty unacceptable - a violation of the Golden Rule, a disregard for the justice emphasized by sacred texts and disrespect for sisters and brothers created in the image of God. In the sacred texts of the Jewish and Christian traditions, God demands fair treatment of workers and harshly judges instances of economic injustice.

This moral imperative is shared by other people of faith. That's why more than 500 leaders of diverse religious traditions have joined together under the banner of Let Justice Roll and signed a letter to Congress calling for another increase in the minimum wage. We are urging Congress to raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour in 2010. This would bring the minimum wage up to or close to a living wage for most workers.

By raising the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour, this nation took one more step in the direction of justice for all. But this must not be the last step we take.

The Rev. Ken Brooker-Langston, a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), is the director of the Disciples Justice Action Network and a board member of the Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign. He and his family live in Annapolis. His e-mail is revkenbl@comcast.net.

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