Reflections on a Living Wage

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I recently accepted an invitation to go to Washington D.C. to conduct a workshop at a gathering of 750 Christian activists from around the nation who were assembling to hammer out a faith-based social agenda to present to Congress. I was told that this was a new coalition which embraced both the right and left wings of the Christian community in an attempt to find a common ground upon which the diverse family of faith could take a firm stand. I was excited to hear proclaimed a solidly Biblical position on our mandate to take up the cause of the poor and vulnerable, and a strong encouragement to the church to re-engage in the redemptive work of caring for the marginalized. There was an appeal for the government to be more just and compassionate in its practices, an appeal to which no one could object. But when it came down to proposing specific policies and legislation, I found myself quite conflicted.

"Charitable choice" was an easy position to support. It essentially encourages government at every level to include religious organizations as legitimate social service providers. Charitable choice is an invitation to the church to re-enter the arena of providing care to those in need without having to mute its message. This is indeed very welcome news and it is now the law of the land.

The predictable "more government - less government" debate was academic, as was the argument over the virtues and woes of private sector vs. public sector control. But when the discussion turned to raising the minimum wage and the right of full employment, I began to experience some internal dissonance. I certainly agreed that families need to be able to earn enough from their labors to live above the poverty line. There was something deeper, however, some subterranean assumption being made here that I could not quite get words around. This stirred an uneasiness in my viscera.

I found myself thinking about the Sanchez family in my neighborhood. From a dirt-poor town in central Mexico, they emigrated to Atlanta with what meager belongings they could carry across the border in their rattle trap van. They took lawn-mowing, hamburger-flipping jobs and by pooling their resources soon had enough capital to start a roofing repair business. Eventually they bought a large old house in our community, renovated it and invited newly arriving friends and relatives to live with them until they stabilized economically. The Sanchez family, by working hard and working together (even the children pulling their load), leveraged entry level opportunities into the American dream - with neither full-employment nor minimum wage guarantees.

I see this happening among the Vietnamese who are moving into our community, as well. And, of course, the Koreans who are running successful corner store businesses in inner-city markets that others have abandoned. Why, I pondered, do these newcomers view as opportunity what so many lower-income Americans see as oppression?

And then it hit me. The livable wage proponents were operating on the assumption that every individual should have the right to earn an hourly rate sufficient to support himself (or more commonly herself) and his (her) children at a level above the poverty line. The assumption of our newcomers, on the other hand, is that the extended family and the community must pull together to seize the unparalleled opportunities of their new homeland. I knew why I felt uneasy. At a time when the American family - especially the urban family - is decimated and community life has virtually evaporated, a policy to reinforce even more individualism would be putting the emphasis in the wrong place.

I flew back to Atlanta with some new-found clarity in my thinking. A job is not a right - it is a result. It comes from hustle and opportunity mined from the environment. A fair wage is largely determined by supply and demand, whereas a livable wage is more a function of social realities. Livable wages have much to do with how we live. The family with shared values that pulls together toward a common goal can achieve much in this economy. Break the family apart and severe hardship can result. I suspect that no economy, regardless of its vigor, can support an entire society of independent individuals and isolated single-parent households.

While I will stand against exploitation in any form, I have come down on the side of strengthening families and building interdependent communities - not living wage legislation. I see daily how the economies of scale work to the advantage of extended families and communities that share child care, food, housing and transportation. I also see how mothers who struggle alone to support their children often succumb to the ruinous pull of the street. It is here where our emphasis must be re-focused - on those who struggle alone.

It takes super-human effort for an under-educated single mother to claw out of the mire of welfare dependency by herself. Two mothers, pooling resources and pulling together, can make the difficult climb somewhat less daunting. A committed husband and wife team, however, can ease the climb considerably. Add the reinforcement of a supportive extended family (or family of faith) and a couple's diligence can yield remarkable results.

From the time God first called out for himself a people, it has been the business of the faithful to implement responsible methods of exchange so that there would be enough resources to go around. From Old Testament gleaning and storehouse tithing to early church sharing where "there were no needy persons among them," it has been the work of the community of faith to pull together to establish a just and compassionate economy. Individualism, it appears, is not the preferred method of the Kingdom. It may even be a curse. The family of faith, on the other hand, has reservoirs of capacity to leverage its connections, to capitalize on economies of scale and to create substantial wealth. In our land of unbounded opportunity, liveable wages are within the reasonable grasp of any accountable and committed community - even in the poorest of our urban areas. Creative interdependence, though cross-grain of our individualistic societal norms, has a far more promising future than a legislated alternative.

Bob Lupton

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