01 March 2011

Catholics and the Minimum Wage

The Missouri Catholic Conference is the political lobbying arm of the Bishops of Missouri, especially towards the actions of state government. For all of the various public policy issues that are-- or should be-- informed by Catholic principles, and also for those policies that will affect the Church and her activities, the Conference is charged with representing the Bishops with the relevant civil institutions. The Conference does a ton of great work and is staffed by knowledgeable and dedicated people.

That being said, there are often areas of public policy that, though there is an undoubted Catholic interest, fall within the realm of prudential judgement. In other words, there is a legitimate case for differing opinions among Catholics of good will, and Church teaching or dogma is not directly implicated.

Enter the minimum wage.

The Missouri State Legislature
is considering a bill to prevent the state of Missouri's minimum wage from exceeding the federal minimum wage by repealing the automatic adjustment for inflation, and the Catholic Conference is actively opposing it. This wouldn't be the first time the Conference has sought to increase, or to prevent the decrease, of the minimum wage. In a sense, it is a reflexive position born of many years of equating concern for the poor with state welfare legislation. This equating of government action with charity (or, even more inexactly, justice) is not dictated by Catholic teaching. But if you read the conference materials, you might think so.

Sound economic theory shows that having (or increasing artificially) a legally mandated "minimum" wage tends to hurt the poor and those who are part-time workers or who are just entering the job market. It adversely affects the employment rate, and ultimately the real wage of those workers who do get or keep jobs, in that it will cause an increase of the cost of living.

But there is also room to oppose the minimum wage within the bounds of Catholic teaching. I may post later a guest piece on the subject, but in the meantime let's take a look at the great social encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno, by Pope Pius XI, with my emphases and comments:

66. The just amount of pay, however, must be calculated not on a single basis but on several, as Leo XIII already wisely declared in these words: "To establish a rule of pay in accord with justice, many factors must be taken into account."


69. It is obvious that, as in the case of ownership, so in the case of work, especially work hired out to others, there is a social aspect also to be considered in addition to the personal or individual aspect...

70. Conclusions of the greatest importance follow from this twofold character which nature has impressed on human work, and it is in accordance with these that wages ought to be regulated and established.

71. In the first place, the worker must be paid a wage sufficient to support him and his family. That the rest of the family should also contribute to the common support, according to the capacity of each, is certainly right, as can be observed especially in the families of farmers, but also in the families of many craftsmen and small shopkeepers. But to abuse the years of childhood and the limited strength of women is grossly wrong. Mothers, concentrating on household duties, should work primarily in the home or in its immediate vicinity. It is an intolerable abuse, and to be abolished at all cost, for mothers on account of the father's low wage to be forced to engage in gainful occupations outside the home to the neglect of their proper cares and duties, especially the training of children. Every effort must therefore be made that fathers of families receive a wage large enough to meet ordinary family needs adequately. But if this cannot always be done under existing circumstances, social justice demands that changes be introduced as soon as possible whereby such a wage will be assured to every adult workingman. It will not be out of place here to render merited praise to all, who with a wise and useful purpose, have tried and tested various ways of adjusting the pay for work to family burdens in such a way that, as these increase, the former may be raised and indeed, if the contingency arises, there may be enough to meet extraordinary needs.

The modern economy that is tearing families apart has already wreaked much damage, and perhaps it is now only as a bitter jest that one might ask if the Catholic Bishops should not be lobbying to ban women from the workforce in the majority of occupations that tax the "limited strength of women". But keep your pitchforks closeted. I cite this paragraph to state that the grave problem of the necessarily-two income family remains. But wait, one might say, "Isn't raising the minimum wage designed to render the two income family unnecessary?" The short answer is no, because the lowest wages in the economy are not designed with the support of a family in mind. All of the factors that lead to increased cost of living hurt the poorest families most. Artificially increased costs and inflation, and the inability of part-time low-wage work to exist, makes it that much more necessary for the poorest families to send mom to work outside the home.

72. In determining the amount of the wage, the condition of a business and of the one carrying it on must also be taken into account; for it would be unjust to demand excessive wages which a business cannot stand without its ruin and consequent calamity to the workers. If, however, a business makes too little money, because of lack of energy or lack of initiative or because of indifference to technical and economic progress, that must not be regarded a just reason for reducing the compensation of the workers. But if the business in question is not making enough money to pay the workers an equitable wage because it is being crushed by unjust burdens or forced to sell its product at less than a just price, those who are thus the cause of the injury are guilty of grave wrong, for they deprive workers of their just wage and force them under the pinch of necessity to accept a wage less than fair.

73. Let, then, both workers and employers strive with united strength and counsel to overcome the difficulties and obstacles and let a wise provision on the part of public authority aid them in so salutary a work. If, however, matters come to an extreme crisis, it must be finally considered whether the business can continue or the workers are to be cared for in some other way. In such a situation, certainly most serious, a feeling of close relationship and a Christian concord of minds ought to prevail and function effectively among employers and workers.

74. Lastly, the amount of the pay must be adjusted to the public economic good. We have shown above how much it helps the common good for workers and other employees, by setting aside some part of their income which remains after necessary expenditures, to attain gradually to the possession of a moderate amount of wealth. But another point, scarcely less important, and especially vital in our times, must not be overlooked: namely, that the opportunity to work be provided to those who are able and willing to work. This opportunity depends largely on the wage and salary rate, which can help as long as it is kept within proper limits, but which on the other hand can be an obstacle if it exceeds these limits. For everyone knows that an excessive lowering of wages, or their increase beyond due measure, causes unemployment. This evil, indeed, especially as we see it prolonged and injuring so many during the years of Our Pontificate, has plunged workers into misery and temptations, ruined the prosperity of nations, and put in jeopardy the public order, peace, and tranquillity of the whole world. Hence it is contrary to social justice when, for the sake of personal gain and without regard for the common good, wages and salaries are excessively lowered or raised; and this same social justice demands that wages and salaries be so managed, through agreement of plans and wills, in so far as can be done, as to offer to the greatest possible number the opportunity of getting work and obtaining suitable means of livelihood.

75. A right proportion among wages and salaries also contributes directly to the same result; and with this is closely connected a right proportion in the prices at which the goods are sold...

So, there is more to it than to ask, "Hmm, should Joe make more money?" There is a connection not only among all in society that is affected in ways seen and unseen when wages or other costs are artificially tinkered with. There is also a very imminent connection between the employer and employees-- a two-sided equation. Why cannot we rely upon men of good will with a stake in the game to come to agreements on wages, rather than to allow the state to dictate terms? In other words, though one as a Catholic might favor such a minimum wage, another can just as "Catholic-ly" oppose it. As a friend of mine emailed me:

To me, the above makes it clear that we are not bound by Church teaching to always push for a higher minimum wage since basic economics tells us that the imposition of higher wages arbitrarily will always result in greater unemployment. This is clearly against the common good. Is it better to have fewer people able to work at a higher wage, while more are unemployed, or to have essentially full employment but at slightly lower wages? My prudential judgment is that it is better for more to have access to the dignity of work, albeit at a lower wage.

I respectfully suggest that the Catholic Conference not make one side of this prudential judgement be the only side it would label as Catholic.


longpants said...

"In other words, there is a legitimate case for differing opinions among Catholics of good will."

In other words, it's OK to disregard the church teachings that challenge our comfy lives.

Prekast said...


Explain to me again just when you find time for productive labor to support your long-suffering family?

Anonymous said...

Oh my. If you bristle at the thought of our church advocating a living wage, then you're really going to hate the pope's next encyclical: http://www.ncronline.org/news/vatican/vatican-craft-catholic-sullivan-principles

It's sort of cute watching you struggle to serve two masters. In the end, it's all just a bunch of futile noise. You need to pick a side. (Actually, I think you already have, but you're having trouble coming to terms with it.)

Anonymous said...

Ah, a lawyer who understands economics! If only bishops did, too.

thetimman said...

Ah, yes, the Marxists come forth. But why not have the courage of your convictions? Why not support legislation that would mandate a uniform salary of $1,000,000 per year? Then we'd all be millionaires!

longpants said...

While I may be the one commenting on your blog here, it's not really me you're arguing with, now is it? This is a maddening church. The magesterium never quite says everything we'd like it to say, and it sometimes says things we wish it wouldn't. Again, back to challenging our comfort zones. Would be so much easier to be a "good Catholic" if all we had to worry about were things inside the sanctuary.

Athelstane said...

Hello longpants,

1) Timman is hardly "disregarding" what the Missouri bishops' conference is saying, yes? He's apparently examined it more closely than...I don't know, 99.9% of Missouri Catholics.

2) As for "teachings of the Church," the Missouri Catholic Conference has no magisterial authority whatsoever of its own accord, any more than any conference, be it local or national, has. Individual bishops (here, let us say Finn or Carlson) that compose it may endorse what it says, and what *they* say must be given due attention; and when they teach in communion with the Pope and the Church, they must be paid at least nominal assent as a part of the ordinary magisterium.

3) The principles of Catholic social teaching are very much part of Church teaching; however, the advocacy of some concrete official state policies does not necessarily carry magisterial import insofar as they may contain considerations of prudence. Bishops may erroneously evaluate a bill or law as being congruent with a principle of CST (perhaps through inadequate or inaccurate information) or likewise fail to consider other unintended consequences of same. And I think this is what Timman is warning about here with regards to the minimum wage.

This is to be contrasted (I can hear the objection coming) with laws which quite clearly contravene principles of the divine or natural law, such as abortion, euthanasia, or same-sex "marriage." No other positive goods can justify such actions in any circumstances. This places such laws in a different kind of analysis than those where prudence is clearly a component of the moral act.

Iowa Hawkeye said...

I find it interesting that when we advocate against abortion based on the Church's teaching regarding Respect for Life, we fail to see the seamless garment of this teaching also includes things such as a just living wage for workers. If Catholics are going to tout Respect for Life, remember that it means more than just the abortion issue.

Anonymous said...

Oh the sad irony of it all.

Funny - we want America to be a "Christian nation," and end all abortions, stop pornography, allow religion to be taught in public schools, etc.

And then when our Catholic bishops suggest ways to make America actually act more Christian, you suddenly go off and say "This equating of government action with charity (justice) is not dictated by Catholic teaching." So, we're only supposed to be "Christian" in some areas, but when it comes to economics, we're supposed to be rugged capitalists, where the rich continue to win and the poor continue to get poorer?

The funniest thing about all this is that you ACTUALLY believe that the lowest amount an employee can get away with paying their workers actually has an impact on the cost of the final product.

So, let's see, if a Polo shirt is made in Malaysia where workers are paid $1.25 per day versus in MO where they're paid minimum wage ... do you honestly think that matters on how much Polo is going to charge per shirt? HAHAHAHA!

Yes, about 100 years ago there might have been a direct correlation between wages and costs. But now corporate CEOs try to get the cheapest labor and materials possible to get the highest bonuses, stock options, and salary.

Today, the average CEO makes 185 times what the average worker makes. And you actually think that lowering the amount of what the working poor makes will affect the final cost of a product??? HAHAHAHAHA!

Keep them coming, Timman, you're an antique riot!

Prekast said...


I guess that about sums it up:

Anonymous said...

The MO House just overturned the2006 voter-approved law that let Missouri's minimum wage rise above the federal level based on annual inflation.

Nice to know that the legislature is again acting against the democratically approved vote by the majority of its citizens...

Unknown said...

The Church doesn't teach that EVERY job that anyone takes has to support a family in order to be just. Can some married guy quote Quadragesimo Anno to McDonald's or the parents of the child he babysits as an explanation for why they need to pay him $25 an hour with full medical benefits? I don't think so. And neither should the bishops.

If a man is unable or unwilling to get a job that supports a family he has no right to marry. Catholic men have always had an obligation to begin their married lives already having the means to support a family. It is THEIR responsibility, not the taxpayer, to figure out how he can afford to be a married man. Newsflash: He needs to do something more competitive than fastfood or daycare.

Raising the minimum wage does nothing to help heads of families and harms the children of those same families when potential employers can't afford to train teenage help at a minimum wage that exceeds the value of an entry level employee.

MyMiddleNameIsAmerica said...

Sorry to be late to the party . . . but I am interested to know your opinion on how these players get in on the action of our economically unjust society: A) Wealthy corporations that do not provide sufficient income and/or benefits for their employees, though they COULD EASILY DO SO (i.e. WalMart); B) Labor Unions (as they currently exist today - oftentimes not necessarily the champions of workers so much as a cash cow for their leaders and organizers); and C) our Stock Market system, which provides great opportunity for businesses to flourish as well as great opportunity for human livelihoods to be treated as expendable pawns in the game of making the rich even richer.

I shout a loud "Amen" to the idea of a wage system that would allow fathers to make enough money at A JOB to support their family, but where can this even begin,now that we are so immersed in an entitlement mentality - on all sides?

Burger Queen said...

Ha Ha Anonymous,

Yes, most goods are sent oversees to be made, chiefly because of our many restrictions that the government imposes as well as taxes that would drive up prices if the company stayed in the US. But the fact is that minimum wage does raise the prices of everything up, including goods that are sold in the stores.

The communist countries believe in "fair" wages as well! When Stalin was in power the doctors made the same as the bus drivers - smart. Face it, flipping hamburgers was never meant to support a family!