Print Post
  • Low wages are hard on families, but conservatives are often silent about the subject. Here's why they shouldn't be. Tweet This
  • Low-paying jobs mean a larger government—but more importantly, under-paying workers is a grave injustice. Tweet This

In a previous post, “Marriage is a Community Affair,” David suggested that we must “think about the force field that helps to hold together or tear apart a marriage.” One of the important institutions in that force field is one’s place of work. Though we did not always see this as keenly as we do today, meeting people like Jolie, a married mother of four we met in Ohio, has helped us to understand how the low-wage economy that working-class people encounter makes it more difficult for young adults to get and stay married.

Jolie and her husband Jake have been married for ten years, but they still don’t have enough money to afford their own place. She lives with her parents during the week, and on weekends their family of six plus the dog all share a bedroom at Jake’s parents’ house. At times they’ve rented an apartment, but the financial strain always ends up being too great. At other times they’ve tried living together at Jolie’s parents’ house, but the tension with the in-laws made things miserable. Jolie works at a daycare, and takes her youngest two kids along with her. Her husband has worked at about every factory and fast food joint in town, and recently started work as a premises technician.

Usually, Jake quits or gets fired because of difficulty with unreasonable supervisors, a common complaint among working-class young adults we interviewed. For instance, once when Jake and Jolie worked together at a nursing home, their supervisor found them talking to each other on the job. Jolie was pregnant, and she was asking Jake if he could move a bucket of ice for her. But the supervisor fired them both on the spot. Jolie couldn’t believe it. “We’re working a seven-dollar-an-hour job,” she exclaimed to her supervisor. “You can’t expect us to hold the weight of the world on our shoulders.” Combine the low wages with erratic work schedules and difficult supervisors and you get this working-class refrain: “I’m looking for a career, not just a job.”

The data suggest that Jake and Jolie are not alone in their search for decent-paying work. A new report by Oxfam America shows that several of the occupations with the highest employment in America have annual mean wages between $19,000 and $30,000. For instance, the mean annual wage for America’s 2.4 million waiters and waitresses is about $21,000. For America’s three million food prep workers and servers, it’s about $19,000. For the 3.3 million cashiers, it’s about $20,400.

In other words, when we’re talking about low-wage workers, we’re not just talking about high-school seniors saving up money for college; we’re talking about mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, trying to make their car payments and saving to buy a house.

Even a wage of $15/hour—Seattle’s new minimum wage—means that you’re making about $29,000 a year. If you have children, this probably means that both mom and dad have to work full-time. And as Jolie and Jake know, that can be difficult when you have small children. At one point in their early married lives, unable to afford daycare, Jake and Jolie worked opposite shifts. Jake would come home at 7 a.m. after driving a truck all night and collapse into bed. Jolie would head to work, leaving a granola bar and a cup of juice on the table for their two-year-old. When the two-year-old woke up, she would help herself to the snack and hunker down to watch cartoons for the morning. Jake woke up in time to help her with lunch, and Jolie would be back just in time for Jake to leave. It’s hard to keep a marriage strong when you almost never see each other.

The prevalence of low-wage work raises challenges for married couples, but the very people who most care about strengthening marriage are typically the ones absent from the conversation about a living wage, or at least on the defensive. This is unfortunate, because there is a conservative case to be made for the living wage.

Low-wage work is hard on families, but those who most care about strengthening marriage are often silent on the subject.

First, corporations that pay employees low wages effectively depend on subsidies (food stamps, Medicaid, the EITC) from taxpayers and the government to top off their low-wage workers’ incomes, as Oxfam America scholar Andrew Yarrow points out. What corporations don’t do—pay their average workers a living wage—they can depend on taxpayers and the government to do. But as Yarrow says, “While some smaller employers may find it hard to pay higher wages, shouldn’t multibillion-dollar companies be held to a higher standard as employers and corporate citizens?” Indeed, allowing profitable corporations like McDonald’s to pay workers low wages is simply another version of corporate welfare. Because the reality is, it takes more than $20,000 to $30,000 a year to raise a family. Conservatives concerned about unsustainable levels of government spending should care about a living wage because when businesses don’t pay living wages, taxpayers foot the bill and the welfare state expands.

Second, and even more important, there is the moral issue of paying the worker what he is owed. In the historic Christian tradition, this is often referred to as the “just wage.” For instance, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “A just wage is the legitimate fruit of work. To refuse or withhold it can be a grave injustice.”

Of course, as many conservative commentators note, the question hinges on what constitutes a just wage in twenty-first-century America. And that’s where the conversation typically stops.

But in his encyclical Centesimus Annus, St. John Paul II says that “society and the State must ensure wage levels adequate for the maintenance of the worker and his family, including a certain amount for savings.” That description does not fit many of the mean annual wages noted in the Oxfam America report. How is a parent of two or more children supposed to support a family, and leave aside a certain amount for savings, with an annual wage of $20,000? (We haven’t even mentioned that these low-wage jobs rarely offer health insurance or other benefits that college-educated people mostly take for granted.)

And if it’s true, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, that to “refuse or withhold” a just wage can be a “grave injustice,” why is there not more moral urgency surrounding the issue? Many times conservatives suggest that it may be nice in theory if more businesses could follow the lead of businesses like Costco (where the average hourly employee earns more than $20/hour) and Hobby Lobby (whose full-time employees start at $14/hour) in attempting to pay their employees a living wage, but it is not realistic in practice. They often point to economists’ forecasts that businesses will be forced to cut jobs, or at least cut back hiring.

If the wage question is in the first place a moral question, adequate wages for all working people should be a normative practice for profitable businesses.

But if the wage question is in the first place a moral question—as the historic Christian teaching insists—then we should exert our imaginations and efforts to make adequate wages for all working people a normative practice for profitable businesses. We should challenge the perverse social contract we’ve struck in America: to sacrifice a decent, living wage for the cashier at Target so that profitable corporations like Target can churn out consumer goods and we can buy them at rock-bottom prices.

Moreover, even as corporations say they cannot afford to give average workers a decent wage, the Oxfam America report points out that “In 2013, the CEO-to-average-worker pay ratio was 331 to 1; 30 years ago, it was just 40 to 1.” Moreover, “The US ratio is more dramatic than in most other countries. In Norway the ratio is 58 to 1, in Germany it’s 147 to 1.” The report also suggests that if the minimum wage “increased as fast as the incomes of the top 1 percent, it would be $31.45 per hour.” If executives at the very top dramatically increased their incomes while maintaining profitable businesses in the last several decades, why hasn’t pay risen for average workers? Surely this isn’t the result of economic necessity. Instead, it seems to reflect the free decisions of free people—decisions that could be otherwise.

But, some conservative commentators say, at least today the poor and working class are better off than previous generations because they have lots of great consumer goods. Meanwhile, couples like Jake and Jolie struggle to keep their families together, as they barely scrape by under the stress that comes from mom having to work during the day, dad having to work at night, and mom and dad rarely spending time together.  Sure, working-class couples might have big-screen TVs in their living rooms and iPhones in their pockets. But the problem with the just-wage-for-cheap-goods trade is that it reflects more of a preference for the consumer, rather than a preference for the family.

To be sure, there is room for debate about the best way to implement a living wage. Ideally, more businesses would voluntarily follow the lead of Costco and Hobby Lobby in paying their employees a living wage.  As a policy matter, policymakers could boost average workers’ pay by raising the minimum wage, implementing direct wage subsidies, or through a combination of the two.

But the bottom line is this: for conservatives who claim to care about supporting stable families, sacrificing a just wage for cheap goods is an unacceptable bargain.