Commentary

Council of Churches leader: The passing of a shameful anniversary

It has been 10 years since Congress raised the minimum wage. Some states have raised their minimum without a federal mandate, but not North Carolina. This 10-year span follows on the heels of a previous 10-year span without a minimum wage increase. Until 1997, the wage was adjusted fairly regularly, even if not fairly regulated. Consider that 1968 was the highpoint for minimum wage earning (adjusted for inflation) and it’s been losing ground ever since.

On July 24, 2009, the minimum wage went from $6.55 to $7.25 per hour, the last step of a process that began with Congress in 2007. If inflation had remained stagnant through this wage stagnation decade, we wouldn’t have a problem. But it hasn’t. Millions of Americans across the country are struggling to get by on $7.25 an hour; not to mention tipped workers trying to make it on just $2.13 an hour. For the past ten years, the minimum wage has increased a grand total of seventy cents. If you’re among the fortunate few who actually work forty hours a week, most work less, for this salary, your weekly wages are only $18 more than they were in 2009 or roughly $121 a month. That won’t make a car payment these days or buy a month’s worth of groceries for a family of four. It won’t buy groceries for me and I live alone.

Scripture has much to say about wage inequity, starting with the basic mandate to pay the worker enough for that worker’s family to have food, clothing, and shelter. The minimum wage no longer provides this moral baseline. And yet, the wealth gap in our nation continues unabated with wealth continuing its upward flow to the few at unprecedented rates.

The concentration of wealth in the hands of a few is not a new phenomenon. That’s why the biblical Holiness Code created a system that allows people to acquire wealth through ingenuity and industry, but not to amass wealth in proportions that are unhealthy for a just society. Rest for laborers and livestock are mandated weekly, work 6 days and rest 1 (Exodus 20:8-11) and for land septa-annually, work 6 years and rest 1 (Leviticus 25:3-7)). More importantly, Jubilee occurs every 50 years, allowing not only rest for people, animals, and land, but also a reset for property ownership. This process prevented wealth accumulation in the hands of a few and saved people from falling into a cycle of poverty (Leviticus 25:8–55). The Jubilee Year includes elaborate redistribution requirements with the stated goal of creating an equitable economic system.

While it’s doubtful we’ll pass Jubilee legislation to govern modern economic engines, it’s not too much to expect the minimum wage to keep pace with inflation and the cost of living. Of course, the reticence to do so is tied up in the very inequities that suggest Jubilee necessity. Those who own the most are often the most reluctant to enact equitable compensation guidelines. We hear excuses like: minimum wage jobs are for teenagers entering the workforce or the elderly who want extra spending money in retirement. In reality, teen workers make up only 10% of the minimum wage workforce and most minimum wage jobs held by the elderly are necessary to make ends meet.

And so, we are back to the daily wage mandated as a just wage according to scripture. To help us move toward minimum wage justice consider that since 2009:

  • The minimum wage has lost about 9.6% of its purchasing power to inflation.
  • Elementary and secondary schools are among the top five minimum wage employers.
  • More women than men work for minimum wage.
  • 30% of hourly adult workers are “near-minimum-wage,” making less than $10.10 an hour.

Raw capitalism understands that if workers are paid more they will spend more and energize the economy. That should be enough to convince lawmakers to raise the wage. In truth, there is a much more compelling reason. It’s the right thing to do. The Bible tells me so. Here’s hoping we don’t celebrate this anniversary again next year.

The Rev. Jennifer Copeland is the Executive Director of the N.C. Council of Churches. This essay appeared originally on the Council’s website.

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