Will raising the minimum wage put more money in the pockets of America’s working poor? Or will it have the opposite effect, throwing more poor people out of work?
That’s the question we ask whenever anyone proposes a hike in the minimum wage, as President Obama did in his State of the Union Address. But it’s also the wrong question, diverting us from the biggest one of all: what are the rights that we share as human beings? Minimum-wage opponents say we all have the right to pursue our own happiness—and to maximize our self-interest—so long as we respect others’ right to do the same. Proponents counter that everyone has a right to certain necessities of life—food, clothing, and shelter—and that no one can be happy if some of us are deprived. And the proponents have Pope Benedict XVI on their side. Yes, that Benedict. You know, the“conservative” who just stepped down from the papacy. In a 2009 encyclical, Benedict decried “the low value … put on work and the rights that flow from it, especially the right to a just wage.” Benedict’s comments echoed a long theological tradition among Catholics, who helped win the first American minimum wage measures a century ago. Joining hands with Protestant allies, they insisted that every human being should earn enough from their labors to lead a“decent livelihood.” The term was coined by John A. Ryan, a Catholic priest and the leading figure in the minimum-wage movement. Born to Irish immigrants on a Minnesota farm in 1869, Ryan watched bankers prosper while common laborers struggled to make ends meet. “We must have a more just distribution of wealth,” Ryan wrote in his diary in 1894. “We must have less individualism, more humanity and no absolutely unrestrained competition.” Twelve years later, in 1906, Ryan published A Living Wage: Its Ethical and Economic Aspects. Rejecting the dominant laissez-faire doctrines of his day, Ryan argued that minimum-wage laws would affirm the dignity of all working Americans. “To compel a man to work for less than a Living Wage is as truly an act of injustice as to pick his pocket,” Ryan wrote. “In a wide sense it is also an attack on his life.” In 1912, Massachusetts became the first American state to adopt a minimum wage; the following year, eight more states followed suit. But many of these measures were struck down, especially after the Supreme Court voided the District of Columbia’s minimum-wage law in 1923. According to the Court, the D.C. measure violated citizens’ “liberty of contract”; it also extracted an “arbitrary payment” from employers. Nonsense, Ryan replied. The Court’s decision reflected the “extreme individualism” of America’s “Puritan” heritage, he argued. Americans needed to leaven that tradition with the “social and organic” principles of Catholicism, Ryan added, which emphasized our shared duties to each other. In 1937, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was sworn in for a second term, Ryan became the first Catholic to offer an invocation at a presidential inauguration. And the year after that, Roosevelt signed the first national minimum wage: 25 cents an hour. He then sent a 70thbirthday message to John Ryan, thanking him for promoting “the right of the individual to happiness through economic security, a living wage, and an opportunity to share in the things that enrich and ennoble human life.” America’s minimum wage climbed slowly but stalled in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan claimed that it had “caused more misery and unemployment than anything since the Great Depression.” His successor, George H.W. Bush, vetoed a Congressional measure to raise the minimum wage from $3.35 to $4.55; a compromise bill hiked it to $4.25. George W. Bush signed the last minimum-wage increase in 2009, bringing it to $7.25. Now President Obama has proposed to boost it to $9 per hour by 2015. He also asked Congress to index the minimum wage to inflation, noting that Mitt Romney supported the same idea during the last presidential campaign. But GOP leaders quickly shot it down, insisting that it would increase unemployment. And it might do that, especially among low-skilled workers. Economists are sharply divided: some say raising the minimum-wage reduces jobs, while others find no such effect. Yet this isn’t just an economic issue; as John A. Ryan understood, it’s also an ethical one. “The question . . . is not what a man must have in order to be a profitable producer,” Ryan wrote, “but what he ought to have as a human being.” We’re still waiting for an answer.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).