On Tuesday, following the Senate vote for cloture on minimum wage legislation, Jim Wallis joined Sen. Edward Kennedy, Sen. Sherrod Brown, Sen. Tom Harkin, and religious leaders in a press conference. This post is adapted from his remarks. The final vote on a minimum wage increase in the Senate is expected today.
This is a good vote, but as Sen. Kennedy already said, it’s only the beginning –we’ve got a long way to go.
It’s a political fact now that faith communities across the board, very widely, are in favor of increasing the minimum wage. Why is that? What’s the theological foundation behind that? We don’t just do politics; we do politics because of our faith.
I just returned from Davos, and the World Economic Forum, and even at Davos they’re dealing with this issue. I was asked to address a group called, “Should we despair of our disparities?” I cited the Hebrew prophets and how they always seemed to speak up when the gaps in society grew too large. When the gulf widened and injustice deepened, the prophets rose up to thunder the judgment and justice of God. Their words reveal that God hates inequality. That’s our theological foundation – God hates inequality.
What does the Bible have to say about the minimum wage?
The prophet Isaiah said: “my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain…” (65:22-23).
James, who was the sibling of Jesus, and probably knew what his brother thought about things pretty well, said: “Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you have kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord.”
Six states passed referenda on a minimum wage in November. I want to commend the Let Justice Roll Campaign, an initiative of the National Council of Churches, and we were happy to work with them. We found that Americans agree with this. Americans think that if you work hard and full time, you shouldn’t be poor. But 9.2 million American families are. Somebody in all those households works hard, full time, and yet they’re all raising their kids in poverty. That’s wrong. It’s against our theology and it’s un-American.
What is at risk here is a genuine opportunity society. It’s a “fraud,” I would say, when the average CEO of a Standard & Poor’s 500 company made $13.5 million in total compensation in 2005, while a minimum wage worker made $10,700. Thirty years ago CEOs made 30 times what their average workers made. Japan and Germany are still at about that ratio. Now in America its 400 to 1 – which means the average worker has to work a whole year to make what their boss makes in one day. This is wrong; it’s an injustice; it’s a theological issue.
The House has acted, now the Senate has decided to act. And when the minimum wage passes, we must then take the next step needed to guarantee that work works in America and provides a family success and security. Those who work responsibly should have a living family income with a combination of a family’s earnings, and supports for transportation, health care, nutrition, child care, education, housing. Tax policies should reward work and family stability. Ownership and job creation is critical. Work has to work in America. It doesn’t right now.
The minimum wage is simply the down payment on social justice. We’ve made the down payment, now it’s time to do the rest of the work.