You’ve probably heard about the “living wage” in the minimum wage debate but you probably don’t know what it means. If you do know what it means then it’s likely that no one else defines it the way you do.
The idea is that workers need wages to support their families and only the government can mandate. Increasing the minimum wage will combat the inequality that God condemns in the scriptures. Christians, in particular, will make passionate arguments that appeal to our desire to help those less fortunate.
But does the Bible support this notion of a living wage? Is it really the kind thing to do? Why are we forced to choose between doing something, even if it may not work, and doing nothing?
Those who argue for a minimum/living wage will quote passages of Scripture such as James 5, Deuteronomy 24, Amos 8, and so on. In these verses, and many others, you will see that God is concerned with justice for the poor, needy, and vulnerable. He especially condemns the rich landowners who don’t pay their workers. What we don’t see is any guidance regarding the minimum wage.
The idea of the living wage sounds simple enough but how do you determine the amount? It’s easy to see how much the cost of living changes as you move from San Francisco to Omaha, Nebraska but you can also see it drop if you move an hour east of San Francisco to the Central Valley. A minimum wage in large states is difficult to do, to say nothing of a national wage.
To make things even more difficult we have to consider that no two workers are the same and so any given wage may support one worker but not another. A worker who has a wife and children will need a higher wage than someone who is single and childless. Someone who has a poor credit history may also need a higher wage to pay off debts. How can you mandate one wage that will work for everyone?
Another shortcoming is that minimum wage increases do not help the poor because the majority of poor Americans do not have jobs. This is the reason why most economists do not view this policy as an effective weapon against poverty. The 28 states that raised their minimum wage above the federal level between 2003 and 2007 did not reduce the level of poverty.
When I worked as a security guard for a year I started out making minimum wage ($8/hr) and a year later I was at a different company making $11.40/hr. I wasn’t a statistical anomaly. This happens all the time. We all know that no one ends up where they started and it would raise questions to hear of someone stuck in such a job. A normal life includes such hard beginnings and rites of passage whether it is work, college, or even marriage. What matters more than our current circumstances is the possibility of improving them.
Good intentions can lead to bad consequences. A proper understanding of the Bible teaches us to be concerned about justice for the poor and vulnerable but also compels us to recognize the complexity of the issue of wages that goes beyond simplistic prescriptions. To avoid God’s judgment we have to make decisions based on the right motives. There’s no law Congress could write that can compel us to love our neighbor.