In the faith community, we know and teach that how we treat the weakest among us – those most in need, and who are doing the right thing but still struggling – affects the well-being of us all. My agency, the Labor Department’s Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, works with leaders of many faiths to ensure that low-wage workers are treated equitably and with dignity. This includes receiving compensation that enables them to afford the basics, like rent, transportation, doctor visits and food.
At a recent round-table discussion in Seattle, some of these workers told me about the difficult choices they make daily just to make ends meet, saying things such as I can’t afford the rent or take care of my children’s needs. Although the minimum wage in Washington ($9.19) is already higher than the federal minimum ($7.25), one woman said it’s still not enough to live on. Recent research backs this up: In Washington state, it’s almost impossible for two adults working full time and earning at or just above the minimum wage to afford a two-bedroom apartment for a family.
President Obama has called for increasing the federal minimum wage from its current rate to $9 per hour by 2015 and indexing it to inflation after that. Such a boost in income would benefit some 15 million American workers. Since Congress last enacted a federal minimum wage increase in 2007, 19 states and the District of Columbia have raised their minimum wages, and New York will soon be the 20th to do so. Those states have acted not out of a sense of charity, but out of recognition that everyone who works full time should be able to afford life’s necessities.
On the issue of justice, it would certainly be in line with my background as a pastor and leader in the faith community to suggest that raising the minimum wage is simply the right thing to do for workers. I might be able to persuade some of you that it’s about treating workers with dignity and lifting them out of poverty. You might even understand if I took a condescending and condemning tone, and blamed the greed of others for the struggles that so many hardworking Americans face. Yet I urge you to consider another reason to support a raise in the minimum wage that may appear self-serving, but relates to larger truths about society.
Giving more to our workers for the labor they provide is also good for those of us making more than minimum wage. Why? Because it’s good for the economy. President Obama has essentially called for a 24 percent increase for people looking to build a brighter future and realize the American Dream. Consumer demand is the engine that powers our economy, and extra dollars in the hands of workers equals more spending at local businesses. The raise goes full circle.
The religions of the world teach that people should be treated with dignity and equity, and also that we’re all connected. Even those of no particular faith understand that we’re all in this together. Increasing pay for those at the bottom of the pay scale is an investment in workers’ dignity as well as an investment in our communities.
When our neighbors aren’t fully valued in the workplace, when they’re doing the right thing but still struggling, we must take action to support them. Raising the minimum wage is not simply about giving these hardworking folks the just fruits of their labors, it’s about the value of work and how that rewards us all.
Phil Tom is the director of the Department of Labor’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.