[Finally catching up on the long-promised posts.   Enjoy.And the link to Heather’s Bread is below this one — scroll down and take a look.  I bet she pays living wages.]

    A question that seems to come up frequently in living wage discussions is “What is the living wage?” This is sometimes used as a (poor) rhetorical device, tossed out desperately, as if to say the fabled concept is unknowable, and therefore not worthy of debate.

    Or the question is sometimes used to suggest that the “living wage” being advocated has a meaning so rediculous (McMansions, SUV’s, a television in every pot) that those who propose it are some kind of bizzare breed that answers the question of, "What do you get when you cross a socialist busybody with a greedy materialist?".

    But it is also a question that can be asked sincerely, and deserves as sincere an answer.

***

    First some thoughts about poverty. I have seen the “what is poverty?” philosophy from the pen of people who elsewhere have proven they really do know poverty when they see it. And there, I saw two types of confusion. First, confusing relative poverty with absolute poverty. Secondly, confusing happiness, contentment, or even resignation, with adequacy.

    I think the church teaching on the living wage deals primarily with absolute poverty, not relative poverty. It isn’t about whether a worker can only afford one coat in a society where the norm is to own half a dozen. It is primarily about making sure the worker can purchase the coat he needs.

    As we have seen in previous posts, the living wage does not rest with paying “the market rate”. It follows that however much a worker may be willing offer his suffering joyfully, and find happiness in life even when deprived of basic needs, the church does not allow employers to therefore pay suffering-inducing wages.

    Likewise, we cannot say the worker earns an adequate living merely because he earns as much as anyone in his position always has earned. If generations before him also shivered in the cold for lack of a coat, that does not mean we of this generation are excused from paying coat-wages.

***

    Because the living wage deals with specific, objective human needs, it is not all that difficult to make a good approximation of what constitutes a living wage. Let us look, for example, at what kind of housing a living wage ought to be able to purchase:

    Adequate housing is the kind that keeps out dangerous animals and holds up to reasonably-expected weather conditions. It needn’t be flood-proof if it is built in an area that last flooded at the time of Noah; it needn’t have its own heat supply if located in a climate where the sun provides all the heat a family could want. But yes, in an earthquake zone, it ought to be built so as to not kill its inhabitants when the earthquakes come, nor to leave them homeless afterwards. There ought to be easy access to safe drinking water, and a means of safely disposing of human waste. And so forth.

    The exact construction details are going to vary from place to place. But if you live or travel in that place (as you would, if you had employees there), you could figure this out fairly readily. If you needed to, you could rely on the ever-useful “what if it were me?” questions. “What kind of housing would I need, if I were one of my workers, and lived in this place?”

    And once you know what it is your workers’ wages must pay for, the calculation may be tedious, but it is doable. It is not so difficult to find out what local rents are, and see what sort of housing those rents buy. The amount of rent (or mortgage payment) it takes to inhabit safe, decent housing, that is the amount a living wage needs to cover.

    The calculation is the same for the other human needs. How much does it cost to purchase clothing? To buy nutritious foods? For safe transportation?

    The living wage is, in this respect, terribly simple. Financial advisors are forever telling people to make a budget for personal expenses; the living wage is the bottom line of an adequate but frugal budget.

    This is the kind of the thing the local Better Business Bureau could publish. An accounting firm – the same one that audits your financial statements, for example – easily has the skills to put together such an analysis.  Chances are the workers in question have a fairly good idea themselves, too.

***

    I don’t say that living wage calculations are an exact science; people can reasonably disagree over the precise bottom line. Witness the wide variety of housing that Habitat for Humanity builds around the world. Some of that variation must represent a margin of error, or a range of disagreement, in calculating a living wage. (Or in habitat’s case, what a living wage would buy, if it were paid – Habitat’s clients are the working poor).

    But Christianity isn’t a math test. I can’t imagine that on Judgment Day Jesus is going to turn to one business owner and say, “You paid your workers too much! Who needs sneakers when sandals will do?!” and to another, “You paid too little! Anyone born after 1970 was supposed to have air-conditioning!”

    On the other hand, it isn’t unreasonable to fear hearing our Savior ask, “What part of ‘the children shouldn’t have to play in untreated sewage’ didn’t you understand?”

    The essential thing is that we make the effort required, and make it in good faith.  And then that we carry it out.  Better to be off by 5%, but to pay the wage, than to not bother in the first place for fear of an honest error.

   

***

    This moral burden falls first of all to business owners and managers. In a lesser it way, consumers, too, need to do what they can to support the living wage. The government’s part is to put into place those “structures of justice” that support, rather than undermine, this moral imperative.

    Asking “What exactly is a living wage?” is a legitimate question, for those who mean to find, and live out, the answer. A good catholic can have doubts about what role minimum-wage laws should play in it all, or agree to disagree about what sort of meals a worker ought to be able to afford. But the question ought not be used as an excuse for rejecting the moral teaching the church. Rather, because the question can be answered, it behooves us to see it answered and implemented.

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