To begin with:
The result is what analysts are calling the hourglass economy where the wealthy do well, those with low-incomes fare poorly, and the middle-class disappears. Others have described the most recent income trends as the Great Slide where more and more Americans fall out of the middle-class because of job loss, rising foreclosure, and dwindling savings for retirement.
In contrast to such insanity, the Church urges a living wage (Rerum Novarum 45-46).
What’s a living wage? A living wage fulfills four criteria:
1. Families in general seem to be living at a standard of decency appropriate to their society;
2. They do so without working undue hours;
3. They do so without wives being forced to work outside the home or children forced to work inappropriate hours or under inappropriate conditions (if they choose to do so, that’s another story);
4. They do so without undue reliance on government support or consumer credit.
And the Church repeats this call for a living wage constantly:
Pope John XXIII, Pacem et Terris, (11 Apr, 1963), 20. “The worker is likewise entitled to a wage that is determined in accordance with the precepts of justice. This needs stressing. The amount a worker receives must be sufficient, in proportion to available funds, to allow him and his family a standard of living consistent with human dignity.”;
Pope John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, (15 May, 1961), 18 “They concern first of all the question of work, which must be regarded not merely as a commodity, but as a specifically human activity. In the majority of cases a man’s work is his sole means of livelihood. Its remuneration, therefore, cannot be made to depend on the state of the market. It must be determined by the laws of justice and equity. Any other procedure would be a clear violation of justice, even supposing the contract of work to have been freely entered into by both parties.”;
Pope John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, (15 May, 1961), 71 “It must be determined in accordance with justice and equity; which means that workers must be paid a wage which allows them to live a truly human life and to fulfill their family obligations in a worthy manner.”
Nowhere in the United States can people making minimum wage possibly afford a 2 bedroom apartment. If you are one of the many who have been trained to think that the only Catholic Social Teaching that matters is abortion, let me put it this way: What this translates into is immense pressure to abort when new families are holding down two and three jobs to barely keep their noses above water, or when dad can’t take it and ditches the family.
So some people (many of us motivated precisely by Church teaching) advocate, as a small measure to improve the lot of the working poor and alleviate pressure to abort, a raise in the minimum wage. It’s not a panacaea, but it’s a step in the right direction. If you care about preventing abortion, you should care about this.
But the response from the reliably wrong Movement Conservative is not “Abortion is a non-negotiable! If this will help reduce abortion rates, I’m all for it!”. Instead, it is a reliably cocky demand that we trust in his infallible prophetic powers and pull out the stops to prevent a raise in the minimum wage. It will hurt the economy. Job loss! Replacement by robots. Business driven into bankruptcy! Ruin! Be very afraid. We just know this. Trust us!
Now before being stampeded by such folks remember: you are listening to the same people who have been so wrong about so much so many times for so long that nobody should trust them to predict a coin toss, much less this. We are talking about people who predicted a glorious outcome to the Iraq War. People who hailed Cliven Bundy as a folk hero. People who, just last month, were foretelling that Obama was going to invade the southwest with a massive force of 1200 people, declare martial law, and seize everybody’s guns. People who labored for years to say that torture was perfectly compatible with Catholic teaching. People who are reliably wrong in ways visible from the International Space Station. Gas was going to be $5.45 per gallon by 1/1/15. Unemployment was supposed to be stuck at over 8%. The stock market was supposed to crash. The entire U.S. economy was supposed to collapse. Remember these guys?:
Or this guy?:
Or the fact that they lied even to themselves in order to fend off the blandishments of reality with “math you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better”?
In short, here is the conservative prophetic track record compared to the Church’s: When Bush assured him the war would be quick and easily won, Cardinal Pio Laghi told him “that three things would happen if the United States went to war… First, it would cause many deaths and injuries on both sides. Secondly, it would result in civil war. And, thirdly, the United States might know how to get into a war, but it would have great difficulty getting out of one.”.
So, given the choice between the Church’s cloud cuckoo land, pie in the sky teaching and the hard-headed, rock solid prophetic powers of the Wrong About Everything Party, I think the obvious and prudent choice is to listen to the Church and not to the Wrong About Everything Party. For the hard-headed, rock solid fact is that, in opposing the call for a raise in the minimum wage, that Party repeatedly offers prophecy and nothing but prophecy as the evidence for their case.
But we don’t need prophecy. We have, you know, data and facts and stuff showing that raising the minumum wage actually helps the economy and has done so repeatedly–in, like, real places in the Real World. Because taking a step toward living out the Church’s social doctrine (in this case, a living wage for workers) turns out to lead to blessing, just as God promises.
I pointed this out recently to some of my readers elsewhere who had been strenuously arguing against raising the minimum wage. She, like many others opposing this small but sensible move, claimed to be “prolife”. Yet when shown that the minimum wage hike was both beneficial and helps reduce pressure to abort, she (like so many other allegedly “prolife” conservatives) suddenly changed her tack and said that she didn’t see what good it would do since only 3% of workers are on minimum wage. Why all this fuss over the minimum wage? Why not focus on abortion instead?
It was a remarkably revealing thing to say when you think about it. It meant the following:
a) Sure the minimum wage raise works in reality. But will it work in theory? What matters more than responding to facts is clinging to massively imprudent manmade dogma. (This from the subculture that based its whole rejection of the Church’s urging to avoid war on the claim that “prudential judgement” meant we could blow off the warnings of two popes and all the world’s bishops because the “real world” wisdom of the Bush Administration and the War Party knew better than the Ivory Tower Magisterium). She was as impervious to fact as a Soviet shooting “counter-revolutionary weather forecasters” because they didn’t fit the Five Year Plan. It is something we see being repeated wherever Movement Conservative dogma triumphs over reality in Louisiana, Kansas, and Wisconsin.
b) Those 3% people and their unborn children don’t matter. Forget the lost sheep and attend only to the ninety and nine. Screw the least of these.
c) I will now use the unborn as human shields for changing the subject and leaving the working poor destitute (even though that means a much greater pressure for them to abort).d) Whatever I *say* about abortion being a “non-negotiable”, my *real* Pearl of Great Price is making sure that not the tiniest penny is sacrificed to the poor by the rich who refuse the working poor a just and living wage.
In this, she was backed by the very highest leadership in the supposed “Party of Life”. Indeed, that leadership has made clear its bitter envy of every penny the poor have to the degree that John Boehner said he would commit suicide before raising the minimum wage. Message: the wages of 3% of the work force are “trivial”–and we would rather die than relinquish one penny to them. That is the real Politics of Envy, and it shows the real bottom line: Namely, Abortion is not the non-negotiable for people who make such arguments. No, the real non-negotiable is the superstition that the paymaster, not the worker, is the rightful owner of the worker’s just wages. And that is a superstition denied throughout the history of the Church, to the degree that two of the Four Sins that Cry to Heaven for Vengeance are oppression of the poor, and defrauding workers of their just wages:
Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. 2 Your riches have rotted and your garments are motheaten. 3 Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure* for the last days. 4 Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned, you have killed the righteous man; he does not resist you. (Jas 5:1–6).
St. Ambrose: “You are not making a gift of your possessions to poor persons. You are handing over to them what is theirs. For what has been given in common for the use of all, you have arrogated to yourself. The world is given to all, and not only to the rich.”
St. John Chrysostom: “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.”
St. Gregory the Great: “When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.”
St. Gregory the Great: “For if everyone receiving what is sufficient for his own necessity would leave what remains to the needy, there would be no rich or poor.”
St. Basil: “Are not thou then a robber, for counting as thine own what thou hast receivest to distribute? It is the bread of the famished which thou receivest, the garment of the naked which thou hoardest in thy chest, the shoe of the barefooted which rots in thy possessions, the money of the pennyless which thou hast buried in the earth. Wherefore then dost thou injure so many to whom thou mightest be a benefactor.”
St. Bede: “He then who wishes to be rich toward God, will not lay up treasures for himself, but distribute his possessions to the poor.”
Leo XII: “Every person has by nature the right to possess property as his or her own […] But if the question be asked: How must one’s possessions be used?, the Church replies without hesitation in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas: ‘One should not consider one’s material possessions as one’s own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when other are in need.’ […] True, no one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for one’s own needs and those of one’s household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly one’s condition in life. […] But when what necessity demands has been supplied and one’s standing fairly provided for, it becomes a duty to give to the needy out of what remains over.”
Pius XI: “The right to own private property has been given to the human by nature, or rather by the Creator himself […] At the same time a person’s superfluous income is not left entirely to one’s own discretion. […] On the contrary, the grave obligations of charity, beneficence and liberality, which rest upon the wealthy are constantly insisted upon in telling words by Holy Scripture and the Fathers of the Church. However, the investment of superfluous income in secureing favorable opportunities for employment […] is to be considered […] an act of real liberality, particularly appropriate to the needs of our time.”
Gaudium et Spes : “God has intended the earth and all that it contains for the use of all people and all peoples. Hence justice, accompanied by charity, must so regulate the distribution of created goods that they are actually available to all in an equitable measure. […] Therefore, in using them everyone should consider legitimate possessions not only as their own but also as common property, in the sense that they should be able to profit not only themselves but other people as well. Moreover, all have the right to possess a share of earthly goods sufficient for themselves and their families. This is what the Fathers and Doctors of the Church had in mind when teaching that people are obliged to come to the aid of the poor, and to do so not merely out of their superfluous goods.”
Paul VI: “Private property does not constitute for anyone an absolute and unconditional right. No one is justified in keeping for one’s exclusive use what one does not need, when others lack necessities.”
John Paul II: “It will be necessary above all to abandon a mentality in which the poor – as individuals and as people – are considered a burden, as irksome intruders trying to consume what others have produced.”
When all this is pointed out, the next tactic trotted out to justify denying a living wage is this extremely popular sleight of hand (from the Young Conservative site which boasts that “Sarah Palin Decimates Fast Food Workers Complaining About the Minimum Wage“:
You can find variations on this beloved meme repeated hundreds of times across the Interwebz. It is a lie. Here is how the lie works: It is designed to make you hate unskilled workers as lazy, selfish cowards by comparing them to Revered Uniformed Authority Figures who are also underpaid. What it never ever does is state the obvious point that the real selfish cowards are those who underpay both the Revered Uniformed Authority Figures and the unskilled worker. It is a deliberate sleight of hand and a lie designed to misdirect your anger away from those responsible for the sin that cries to heaven for vengeance and toward the one person who has the least power to help the Revered Uniformed Authority Figure. It is deliberately designed to keep you from asking why both the Revered Uniformed Authority Figure and the unskilled worker do not receive a living wage. In short, ask yourself “Cui bono?” Who benefits from this meme and the zillions like it? Not the underpaid workers *nor* soldiers. Only those who refuse them the living wage the Faith demands. Only those committing the sin that cries to heaven for vengeance. Don’t get played.
Now the crowning irony of all this is that, very often, the people getting played are, themselves, the people most oppressed and cheated by these lies. Again and again I hear from people who tell me they work for minimum wage, hold down two jobs, barely get by, and are, as the phrase goes “poor but proud” and reject this “socialist” stuff. This is something deep in the American spirit and it is, in one sense, profoundly admirable. It was John Steinbeck who once remarked that “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”
The problem lies in the fact that Church teaching is not socialism, but is constantly cast as socialism by Movement Conservatives whose interest is in neither the Church’s teaching nor in the unborn, but in preserving the perks of the rich who deny a living wage.
This is not sustainable, for the reason given in the top graphic. And if it doesn’t change and soon, the Social Darwinists who casually declare that “In life there are winners and losers” as they write off the increasing percentages of the poor and eroding middle class are going to be faced with violence. That’s not something I hope for. It’s something I dread. But it is something inevitable if we do not find a way to change the present course we are on. As JFK said, “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”
All of which is to say, yet again, that the way out of our troubles here, as in so many other areas, is to listen to and learn from the Church and evaluate our politics and economics in light of it, rather than to cannibalize Church teaching in order to accessorize our politics and economics. One way to do that is buckle down and read the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Or if that seems too daunting, consider taking a look at a little series I am writing for the Register that sketches the four pillars of Catholic Social Teaching: The Dignity of the Human Person, the Common Good, Subsidiarity, and Solidarity.
There so much goodness in the Church’s teaching and it is such folly to ignore it.
18 “Come now, let us reason together,
says the LORD:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.
19 If you are willing and obedient,
20 but if you refuse and rebel,
you shall be devoured by the sword;
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Is 1:18–20)