Editorial — Raising the minimum wage

Lost in the clatter and analysis that always follows a general election was this significant result: the voters, even in allegedly “red” or conservative states, voted overwhelmingly to raise the minimum wage in their states.

According to the Associated Press, the wage increase proposal won its largest margin of victory in Alaska, where the issue on the ballot won approval with nearly 70 percent of the vote.

In Arkansas, increasing the minimum wage was approved with 65 percent of the vote; in Nebraska the vote for approval was 59 percent; in South Dakota, 53 percent. The AP also noted that voters in Illinois “also indicated their support for a higher minimum wage by voting overwhelmingly in favor of a non-binding advisory question that asked voters whether they supported increasing the hourly wage to $10 by Jan. 1, 2015.”

In California, two cities voted to raise their minimum wage — San Francisco and Oakland.

In fact, again according to the Associated Press, when the question of increasing the minimum wage is taken from the machinations of politicians and left to the will of voters, the voters want minimum wage workers to receive more money — every time.

Each time the question has been left to voters in recent years — 14 occasions in all, according to NBC News — they have approved the increase. (We’re not talking about a fortune here; the federal minimum wage now is just $7.25 an hour, and most proposals call for increasing it to just $10.10 an hour — or less.)

So, while some politicians are saying, “no, increasing the minimum wage will stifle business growth and cost jobs,” voters are saying “nonsense. These people need more money.”

That is a message the Catholic Church has been delivering for a long time.

Back in April the church joined with a group of national religious leaders to tell Congress that raising the minimum wage is “a moral obligation.”

In a letter to congressional leaders, they said such an increase was “indispensable to ensuring that no worker will suffer the indignity of poverty.”

The U.S. Senate, however, a body which Mark Twain once referred to as “that grand old benevolent asylum for the helpless,” nevertheless voted 54-42 on April 30 against opening debate on the bill to increase the wage, killing the measure for the immediate future, the Catholic News Service (CNS) reported.

But while Congress is twiddling its thumbs or taking interminable recesses, CNS reports that some cities and states have already either acted on or are negotiating minimum wage hikes.

“Despite concern from opponents to any wage increase,” CNS said, “most legislators have come to see that the likely benefit to workers outweighs the cost to businesses.”

Catholic Church leaders have felt that way for a long time, too.

Last year Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, said the principles of Catholic social teaching call attention to how public policy affects the least among us.

He said that Catholic Charities wants “to lift people out of poverty,” not support more of them who cannot make ends meet.

In a nation as wealthy as this one, where corporate leaders have Park Avenue penthouses, homes in Florida and in ski resorts, yachts and private jets and on and on, poverty should be a non-issue. In defense of accumulating as much wealth as possible, some people will refer to the Biblical passage that says “the poor will always be with us.”

But many theologians have explained that the statement wasn’t intended to be the voicing of an irreversible fact, but a statement based on man’s own weaknesses, our unwillingness to help our neighbors — and a reminder of God’s presence with us. You will always have the poor to help, Jesus says in the Gospel, while noting that he won’t always been around to lead his followers in person.

The idea, of course, is to treat others as we want to be treated; to help those who most need it — to live the Gospel call that Jesus explained so many times.

Sixteenth century theologian Matthew Henry noted that “the existence of poor gives scope for the exercise of the graces of charity, benevolence, and self-denial; and such opportunities will never be wanting while the world lasts.”

Increasing the minimum wage is just one way to “exercise the graces of charity.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in their 2014 Labor Day statement, noted that in the America of wealth and prosperity there remain 46 million people who “are struggling to make ends meet.”

“For those fortunate enough to have jobs, many pay poorly,” Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski wrote. “Greater numbers of debt-strapped college graduates move back in with their parents, while high school graduates and others may have less debt but very few decent job opportunities.”

Bishop Wenski also wrote that “raising the minimum wage, more and better workforce training programs … would be a good place to start” when it comes to lifting people out of poverty.

The people obviously know that. Let’s hope the political leaders can learn from their constituents.

Glenn Rutherford
Record Editor

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