Frederich H BorschAn ethical imperative: Paying living wage helps build healthy society

What is the opposite of a living wage? Through my involvement in the Los Angeles and Santa Monica Living Wage campaigns, I have had the privilege of getting to know low-wage workers personally. Through these relationships, I have realized that the opposite of a living wage is a wage that slowly drains away the hopes and dreams of individuals and families, a wage that maintains exhausted workers in nearly desperate poverty.

In Los Angeles County, more than 30 percent of working adults are unable to provide their families with basic necessities without government assistance. The cost of rent alone often eats up most of the $964 per month that a minimum-wage worker earns at a full-time job, and the minimum wage in this state, $6.75, is considerably higher than the national minimum of $5.15. When the family also lacks health insurance (as do 60 percent of the working poor in Los Angeles), even a minor illness can create unconscionable choices like food versus medicine.

When we realize that the heads of the corporations where these family members work often make 300 times and more than what their poorest laborers earn, many of us do more than wonder when we are told the companies cannot stay in business if they were to pay employees a living wage.

We remember the words of the prophets about those who take advantage of the circumstances of others and "trample on the heads of the poor" in order that they may have a fine life for themselves. The employees of these companies often must obtain food stamps in order to feed their children. A living wage of $10.50 an hour would enable people to earn a little more than $400 a week for their work. To many of us, that still may seem precious little, but it does enable them to provide better for their families and to have more dignity in their lives. I think, for example, of a woman I know who has a young son with a slight learning disability. Until she began to receive a living wage, this mother felt forced to work two jobs to provide for her family. Now she at least only has to work one job and has more time to be with her son.

There is a lot of economic evidence -- especially in these times -- that a stronger and more stable economy is built from "percolate up" rather than "trickle down." A greater common good as well as a fairer society comes from more people striving to become part of a middle class rather than wealth supposedly trickling down from a much smaller group of very well-to-do.

As the former CEO of a large concern, the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, I know the temptation to try to balance budgets and keep expenses down by paying at low levels for employees looking for almost any kind of work. Our church, however, is blessed to have compensation policies in place that keep us accountable to our employees and our community. As a moral people, we need to insist that our communities and our corporations examine values, not only costs. We need to ask: "How much do we value the people who work among us? What are their lives worth?"

As a moral people, we have a right and responsibility to say to businesses: If you want to benefit from our tax dollars, then we can require that all who do the labor must be paid at least a living wage, enough to support themselves and their families in basic dignity.

A fair and living wage not only makes ethical sense, it also makes good economic sense. People who can feed and care for their families and provide for their medical care no longer depend on the social services that taxpayers otherwise must provide. Indeed, when we think about it, why should we let companies that benefit from our tax dollars pay their workers less than a living wage and then leave the rest of us to pay for health care and food stamps?

A healthy society -- less poverty, less crime, more people with a stake in the community -- is what will help businesses most. Valuing and paying fairly the needy laborer will make us all better off as a people.

From Episcopal Life February 2003

Editorís note: Bishop Frederick Borsch has been involved in the living-wage movement in Los Angeles from its beginning.. Engaging in often colorful and inventive demonstrations and working with city councils, other civic and union leaders, the workers themselves and other clergy, the movement has had success, particularly with hotel, custodial and airport workers. The City of Los Angeles now requires that all who work for the city and for those companies that contract with the city be paid the living wage. The living-wage movement has had similar accomplishments in other parts of the country.

 
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