I'm noticing lots of talk at different Catholic blogs and sites about the various proposals to raise the minimum wage. It seems to me that people tend to get caught up in a few different issues:
1. It is definitely wrong to pay people so little that they have to use welfare to make up the difference in order to live.
2. It is not a good idea to make part time work, student employment, and other jobs for people who need to earn money but are not living on those wages disappear completely.
3. The rights of workers to earn living wages are real, but the right of investors and business owners to make a fair return on their capital is also real. Balancing these two sets of rights is important.
4. It is naive to think that businesses will always do what is right and just in regard to their workers. It is also naive to think that government regulations will fix everything. Nevertheless, it is not right to throw up our hands and declare the problems unsolvable.
In general, I support an increase in the Federal Minimum Wage because I think it is unfortunately true that for many business owners and companies the minimum wage becomes a kind of maximum wage. I think this could be done in such a way that the rights of some part-time workers, such as student workers and others who need to earn money but are not the primary wage-earner in their household, could still find jobs. In fact, I think we need some kind of bill of rights for part-time workers to help spell these things out.
What would such a bill of rights look like? I don't know. I cheerfully admit that economics and finance are not things I know a great deal about. But it seems to me that there should be some way to balance the needs of workers who do low-wage jobs for a living, and workers who wish to work such jobs temporarily to earn a little cash while living with another wage-earner (usually, but not always, a parent) who is earning the family's primary income. We used to be able to do that sort of thing in America--so why, in an era where the CEOs of major big-box stores are bringing home $20 million or so in compensation every year, is it impossible to pay someone who needs to support a family enough to live on without needing government aid in the form of welfare, Medicaid, or other federal benefits?
Americans talk a lot about the dignity of work. We get sort of self-righteous about it, in fact. But few of us have been in the position where that $8.00 an hour is our sole wage, such that if our boss actually does offer us a few more hours a week here and there we have to worry that our food stamps will disappear (because a couple extra hours a week at $8.00 an hour isn't going to pay for groceries). When we talk about the "working poor" we tend to get a bit moralistic about how if they really wanted to improve their lives they would just do X, or Y, or Z--and X is "get a better job," Y is "go to college," and Z--well, Z involves speculating that they'd be better off without kids, as if that changes the situation when the kids are already there.
I'd like to see an attitude among my fellow Catholics that remembers that the working poor are our brothers and sisters, too. Sure, they may have made a few bad choices here and there, but chances are they also didn't have most of our opportunities, either. So perhaps a part-time workers' bill of rights that would protect the workers who need to support families while making room for students or others who just need a little extra cash might be useful if we're going to raise the minimum wage.