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America's common good and minimum wages

Howard Bess

In the twentieth chapter of the Matthew Gospel, Jesus tells a story. The story was about the wage that was to be paid to poor farm laborers who waited each day to be called to the harvest fields. The issue in the story is the amount to be paid to each worker at the end of the day. Modern understanding of the economics of Galilee in the lifetime of Jesus defines the point of the story. A laborer is deserving of a livable wage.

At the time of Jesus, rich land owners regularly abused farm laborer by paying them less than a livable wage. The rich got richer. The poor got poorer. Jesus became the champion of the poor.

How much should be paid to a person, who works as a laborer? The history of this debate runs through all of American history. In the 19th century on multiple occasions, Congress passed and a U.S. president signed a minimum wage law. Each time, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law. In 1938 congress passed and President Roosevelt signed a minimum wage law. The law passed in 1938 has not been successfully challenged in our courts. The amount of the minimum wage has been raised several times and President Obama recently advocated for a minimum wage of $9 per hour. Today even $9 per hour is well below a livable wage for a person who is the only wage earner in a household. By the standards of the Bible, paying a person $9 per hour is below a livable wage and smells of immorality. A laborer is deserving of a livable wage.

Our national founding documents establish a commitment to the common good of all citizens. Citizens are created equal and have unalienable rights. Citizens are promised justice and the nation is called upon to promote the general welfare of its citizens. The common good is the historical moral test of America. Is it just and does it promote the general welfare of American citizens when we allow employers to pay people less than a living wage for their labor?

When I take the teachings of Jesus seriously, I am forced to conclude that employers who pay their workers less than a living wage are immoral. When I take seriously the American commitment to the common good, I am forced to conclude that employers, no matter what the minimum wage law may say, are immoral when they pay employees less than a living wage for their labor.

The ethics of Christian economics are lofty, but are they practical? The American standard of the common good makes for great rhetoric, but in the real world is the common good workable? Working with both Christian and American morality standards, can practical application of the common good be achieved in the real world? It is a tough job.

Walmart has a large retail store here in the area where I live. They employ hundreds of people. For many years I served on the board of directors of a not-for-profit housing corporation. The corporation specializes in housing people with special needs. A significant portion of the special needs housing owned by the corporation is for people with low incomes. The housing for low income persons and families is heavily subsidized by government grants, tax credits, low-interest loans, property tax relief and rent subsidy vouchers. I was jolted into reality when I realized that many of our low-income tenants were employees of Walmart.

I was further surprised when I realized that the same Walmart employees qualified for food stamps. A larger picture developed. Walmart is a big, direct benefactor of government money that is used to subsidize their employees. In fact since Walmart is closely controlled by the Sam Walton family, the pockets of the Walton family are being padded by government housing programs for low-income families and food stamps. The Walmart employee base is heavily subsidized by public assistance programs. Members of the Walton family are regularly listed among the wealthiest people in the world. The magnitude of the transfer of wealth from government to the Walton family is multiplied when we note that Walmart owns over 4,000 stores across the United States. The same dynamics that exist in my local area is multiplied by 4,000.

Walmart is the largest corporation in America. Live Better, Pay Less is their motto. Walmart pays most of their employees a non-livable wage. People pay less at Walmart partly because Walmart pays most of their employees low wages, and people blindly allow massive use of tax dollars indirectly to support the Walmart operation. The Walmart slogan is deceiving at best and when analyzed is a lie. We all pay more taxes so that Walmart can sell for less.

By the standards of the teachings of Jesus from Nazareth and by the implied standard of the common good demanded in our American founding documents, Walmart is an immoral corporation and those who control the Walmart operation are immoral.

I am not suggesting that Walmart has ever done anything illegal. Morality is a much tougher test.

I have used Walmart as an example, but the morality of the rich prospering at the expense of workers who are paid less than a living wage belongs to every employer who carries on the practice. The ethic of Jesus demands that workers be paid a living wage. The common good that undergirds the health of our nation also demands that workers be paid a living wage.

The great morality issue for America is not sexual. It is economic.

The Rev. Howard H. Bess is a retired American Baptist minister who lives in Palmer.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.