Thursday, May 1, 2014

Do we need a part-time workers' bill of rights?

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.


bearing said...

This is a serious question. I bring it up because the cost of living varies so widely from place to place around the country.

Why not allow the federal minimum wage to remain low, a true minimum while calling for most states and municipalities to raise the minimum wages within their borders?

Areas with a low cost of living can compete for businesses by keeping the minimum wage relatively low, promising those businesses a lower-cost "living wage." Areas with a high cost of living can raise the minimum wage to match the cost of living.

A high national minimum wage might actually exacerbate inequality because it encourages us to have a uniform wage, whereas we can't possibly have uniform cost of living -- so the deficit will be much greater in some areas. Doesn't it make more sense for people in high-cost-of-living areas to lobby their state and municipal governments for a rise in the minimum? Isn't that more in line with the principle of subsidiarity?

Just food for though.

Unknown said...

"they may have made a few bad choices here and there, but chances are they also didn't have most of our opportunities"

You're right. Charity should not be dependent on whether someone is a member of the "deserving" poor. Jesus made no such distinction. In addition, we should also remember that many people were also wiped out by the economic upheaval from which we are just emerging.

Clayton Hennesey said...

I think the way to get to the heart of what you're trying to work through is this. Ask yourself, would Red Cardigan's family adopt a poor person, that is, carry the poor person's human overhead, food, medical, etc? Because that's what you're asking some implicit others to do: absorb the overhead of more numbers of extra people out there than can support themselves by the applications of their own skills.

If every family of Red Cardigan's earnings absorbed and took just one or two more persons-overhead off the street, your problem would be solved.

Of course, if you try to address the problem by taking other peoples' money by force, in extremis they may respond simply by making the problem disappear, literally or more slowly. If you simply get rid of enough poor people, through stress, disease, environmental toxicity, drug morbidity, or any number of other more subtle ways of physically eliminating them as problems, you no longer have a poor people problem.

Fortunately the Church has a long history of the sort of charity needed rather than of the imposition of arbitrary secular legislation.