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Labor & Economy

The Roots of Economic Justice




With Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and six city council members proposing an increase in the minimum wage, the issue sits firmly on the front burner of L.A. government. Of course the Chamber of Commerce and its allies wring their hands and predict disaster, and some economists are throwing scary statistics back and forth.

Will raising the minimum wage to a livable income raise prices? Probably a bit in some parts of the economy. Will people lose their jobs? Probably a few in some sectors, for a short time. Will the economy grow as a result of poor people having more income to spend? Again, probably. Will life be better for low-wage working families? Undoubtedly.

Minimum wages should provide enough income for working families to put shelter over their heads, food on their tables and clothes on their backs. Employers should pay working people enough to not require government and taxpayers to supply the basic needs of a family. As I understand the minimum wage, that was its purpose when first conceived, and that should be its goal today. But the minimum wage now does not provide that level of sustainability. It should; and my belief comes from a deep place in Western society, one rooted in our traditions.

The Jewish Torah puts it quite explicitly: “You will not keep back the laborer’s wage until the next morning.” The text perceives the day’s wages as necessary for a worker and family to survive another day. By withholding enough to live on that day, the employer jeopardizes the survival of the worker as well as the worker’s family. This should not happen, says the narrative, it is unjust and hurts the whole community.

I connect this in my mind with another Torah story, this one from Exodus. As the Jews moved out of slavery in Egypt, they came to a time and place where they had no food. When the people complained to Moses, he took their complaint to a “Higher Power,” and the next morning a spongy substance like frost covered the ground. Turns out the stuff was highly nutritious. But there was a caveat: The people could only gather enough to eat that day. If they gathered more, the extra would rot before they could consume it, so no hoarding. Just enough to survive on for another day on the journey to freedom.

Jesus of Nazareth told a parallel story. A landowner went to the day labor center of his time and hired workers to harvest his crops. He offered each one the amount that would feed and shelter both the workers and their families for another day. Later he went back to the center and found more workers milling about awaiting a job, so he hired a bunch more, offering them the same pay that would allow them to survive for another day. A few hours later he returned, found more workers needing a job, and he hired them on the same terms. When the day was over, he proceeded to pay everyone the same wage – what it takes to live on and provide for a family for another day. The Teacher said that was what justice looks like.

Unfortunately, most people, even people of faith, do not understand this message. My neighbor, who attends a mainline denominational church on the Westside, told me one day while we were discussing a livable wage: “Some people just aren’t worth $9 an hour.” So I suggested that perhaps the minimum wage was not a good measure of people’s value. Perhaps we ought to see what it takes to survive minimally in Los Angeles. What would people need to receive for a day’s work that would create healthy families and communities? What income would make it possible for the children of these workers to have the platform from which to reach for their life’s hopes?

These are the questions that the tradition pushes us to consider. These values go much deeper than the “facts” and probabilities that the Chamber and the economists throw at us in public meetings. These stories go to the very core of what we think the human community should be about and how that understanding can sustain such a place. For everyone.

(Photo of Charles Sprague Pearce mural: Carol Highsmith)

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