As part of the New Deal to slow the economic ruin of the Great Depression and a mere three years after passage of the Social Security Act, on June 25, 1938, Frances Perkins (1882-1965) witnessed President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sign the Fair Labor Standards Act. The FLSA legislated a mandatory minimum wage for all US workers at $.25 an hour (gasp!). Perkins, an advocate for workers, especially women and children, was head of the New York Consumers League, executive secretary of the Committee on Safety of the City of New York (following the tragic 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire), a member of New York’s Industrial Commission (appointed by Gov. Alfred Smith), and the inaugural New York State Commissioner of Labor (appointed by Gov. FDR) before her appointment by then President Roosevelt as US Secretary of Labor and the first woman to serve as a member of the US Cabinet. Notably, this woman spearheaded minimum wage, child labor, and worker safety legislation then confirmed by an Executive Order of FDR, a man familiar (personally and socially) with tragedy, economic crisis, and worker vulnerabilities. Perspectives change when ever-wider experience –like those of women, folks of all economic and social strata, and people with disabilities—is brought to bear on decisions.
75 years later, a federally mandated minimum wage remains contested. The present minimum is $7.25, last raised in 2009. At $7.25, this wage has not kept up with inflation (today’s equivalent would be $10.50) and for many workers even at full time this wage ($14,500 per year) keeps them impoverished. Following the concerns of president predecessors, President Obama spoke in his second inaugural address of raising the minimum wage to $9.00. Since then, Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Representative George Miller (D-California) have introduced the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013 in Congress, to raise the minimum first to $8.20, then in a year to $9.15, and by 2015 to $10.10, after which (if the Act passes) subsequent increases will be indexed to inflation and the annual cost of living.
The arguments for and against raising the minimum wage fall along economic ideological lines. The partisan politics of the last thirteen years polarize the debate, distressing anyone interested in the common good and the welfare of the least advantaged among us (consider the debates surrounding healthcare reform, a graduated income tax, and immigration). Unfortunately, the concerns of our sisters and brothers at the low end of the wage scale -those for whom the “American Dream” is out of reach because a “living wage” has not yet visited their homes– often do not get the hearing in the halls of power that they deserve. Neither Frances Perkins nor FDR have a comparably persuasive voice in the divisive Congress of today. Likely they would be surprised by the decades-long failure to keep the minimum wage attached to inflation, for which they both had ample observable experience in those difficult days from the October 1929 crash to the recovery stimulated by the mandates of FDR’s New Deal labor, social security, and poverty reduction reforms.
Many have come to appreciate the imperative to be mindful and attentive (materially and spiritually) to the needs of those who are least advantaged among us and are committed to see the injustice of the current minimum wage corrected. Why? for at least three reasons: one, because underpaid workers have needs that remain unmet in a land of plenty and a right to its bounty; two, because the global village is watching how we, the people of the US, treat our most vulnerable peoples and judging us by the values enshrined in the nation’s founding declarations; and three, because our neglect of “the least of these” uncovers our neglect of Jesus, who identifies in the most intimate and incarnate of ways with the anawim of yesterday and today.
When we consider our local fast food and box store employee earning $7.25 an hour, and our high-end restaurant wait staff and salon stylists earning $2.13 from the company (and depend upon our gratuities for the remaining $5.12 to meet the minimum). We can and should do better.
Mary Jo Iozzio is professor of social ethics at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, Chestnut Hill, MA. She is Series Editor of Content and Context in Theological Ethics (Palgrave Macmillan), former co-editor of the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics (2006-2013), principal editor of Calling for Justice throughout the World: Catholic Women Theologians on the HIV/AIDS Pandemic (Continuum, 2008), and editor of Considering Religious Traditions in Bioethics (University of Scranton Press, 1998); she is author of Self-determination and the Moral Act: A Study of the Contributions of Odon Lottin, OSB (Peeters Press, 1995) and Radical Dependence: A Theo-anthropological Ethic in the Key of Disability (University of Notre Dame Press, forthcoming). Mary Jo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.