Frequently Asked Questions

Big Questions
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The concept of a living wage respects the dignity of all workers.

Justice

Q Is the “living wage” movement a good thing to support if I want to seek justice?

A Living wage campaigns draw attention to the reality that many people living in poverty are working, but their wages are not adequate to pay for basic living costs. A living wage is defined as the minimum hourly wage that each of two workers in a family of four needs to meet basic needs and participate in society. It is calculated locally and based on actual expenses.

Living wage is not legislated, but it is a helpful basis for dialogue between employers, workers, and the community. It fosters understanding of the situation faced by low-income working families and avoids skepticism about poverty lines and welfare systems. It is different than the minimum wage, which is a corporate calculation of the lowest amount employers can pay workers under the law.

Some employers and municipalities are voluntarily adopting living wage policies. At the local level it can be good business because money for family needs comes back into the local economy.

In scriptural terms, the concept of a living wage respects the dignity of all workers, regardless of what position they hold, and recognizes that they have other human obligations. If one believes that every person is created in the image of God and is called to serve others, a living wage is what a person needs to do that in a modern city. It helps to put a human face on economic policy discussions. And that is a good thing in our current context.

—Kathy Vandergrift teaches public ethics to university students and advocates for the rights of children.

Related Article:
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Faith Formation

Q My brother-in-law’s church just hired a “pastor of faith formation.” (She had served elsewhere as a youth pastor.) That’s a new one for me. What’s a PFF?

A I’m hearing about such newly named positions too, and I’m also noticing that some congregations are setting up their own “faith formation committees” with mandates that expand the ministries of what were formerly church education committees or children’s and youth ministry committees.

I see these developments as positive signs that throughout the denomination we are practicing more seriously something we’ve always preached: lifelong intentional discipleship. As the Heidelberg Catechism declares, “Christ, having redeemed us by his blood, also renews us by his Holy Spirit after his own image, that with our whole life we may show ourselves thankful to God for his benefits” (Q&A 86). One pastor reworded this recently in a sermon: “We are not [just] church members; we are cradle-to-grave whole-life disciples of Jesus.”

Our church systems (which include job descriptions and committee mandates) work best when they intentionally reflect our theology. I’m very grateful and encouraged to see congregations doing such good pioneering work. My prayer is that this pioneering will make space for the Holy Spirit’s wonderful fruit of ministry synergy. When we discern creative ways to coordinate the faith formation blessings of worship, preaching, family devotions, age-focused ministries, and much more, this coordination often provides more opportunities for the Spirit’s transformational power to work.

—Syd Hielema is a professor of religion and theology at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario.

Outreach

Q I like the idea of a “pub theology” group that gathers for conversation in a public setting. However, our church has a ministry to a number of folks who are in recovery, and a setting that features alcohol doesn’t seem ideal. Do you have any suggestions?

A Glad you asked. It’s important to note who is in our current circles, who we are trying to reach, and how we are attempting to do it. We cannot be too sensitive on this and similar issues. If you know from the start that a bar isn’t an ideal space for the group you envision and the people you hope to connect with, you’re ahead of the game.

I tell people regularly that our gatherings at the pub are not about what we are drinking. The fact that many of us who gather enjoy a good craft brew is a bonus, but we are all there for the connection and the conversation. We could just as easily gather over coffee or iced tea.

I know that some “Theology on Draft”-style groups meet in living rooms, which adds an intimacy to the gathering, but a public setting has the advantage of being more accessible. A friend of mine leads a group called “Coffee and Doubt.” They meet at a local coffee shop and invite conversation on spiritual topics for people who are seeking to work out struggles with their own faith in a safe environment. You could also meet at a library, a bookstore, or a community center. The important thing is to let people know what kind of conversations will take place, convey a spirit of openness and hospitality, and be ready to welcome and love whoever sits at the table! Blessings as you seek to connect with the disconnected.

Bryan Berghoef is a church planter in Washington, D.C., and is the author of Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation, and God.

Related Article:
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Comments

To the extent that "employers and municipalities are voluntarily adopt[] living wage policies," especially municipalities, they generally do a diservice (that is, harm) to everyone.  If the market does not set wage levels, sooner or later, the distortion resulting from that creates a price that has to be paid and can no longer be avoided.

Once upon a time, the federal government decided that everyone should be able to buy their own home.  Universal home ownership, it was said, will help everyone.  The problem of course was that not everyone had the financial ability (for whatever the reason) to buy a home.  'We'll fix that', the federal government said, and so it created laws that "cheated" market reality.  The federal government created financial institutions (e.g., Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac), who agreed to purchase artificially low interest loans, and reduced or even eliminated requirements that the borrowers demonstrate ability to pay back the mortage (even at the artificially low rates), in order that the government created objective be realized.

Predictably, this government policy created a real estate "bubble," which is nothing more than a distortion of market reality that eventually must be resolved, just as flowing water follows the laws of gravity.  The resolution came when the "bubble popped," roughly in 2007.  The broader effects of that "bubble popping" included the "great recession of 2007," an economic resolution largely created by the government insisting it could "cheat the market" that has led to incalculable harm, not only to people in the US, but throughout the world as well, and not only for today's generation but for future generations as well.

If private companies want to pay all of its employees a "living wage," more power to them, although if certain kinds of private companies (those having a lot of work that doesn't justify that level of wage) do that, they will eventually fail (economic rules will resolve the distortion).  But if government decides to pay all its employees a "living wage," the "failures" created by that "market cheating" will simply be passed on to taxpayers.  Unfortunately, that doesn't "uncheat" the "cheating," but just moves the problem to another location.  Bush and Obama moved the problem that was created by "cheating" too, but we and especially future generations will still have to live with the problem, now merely moved elsewhere.

Certainly, some jobs by their nature come with a living wage.  Some jobs come with a wage that is beyond the level of a living wage, some even way beyond.  In the other direction, some jobs do not economically justify a living wage, and that is simply reality, just as it was reality that some people who were able to buy homes because the federal government distorted reality enough to make it possible eventually lost those homes.  Cheating that reality accomplishes nothing good but it will accomplish something bad, witness the housing bubble, the great recession of 2007, and the current national debt amount.

 

There are other problems, too.  When I got my first job, I was 15.  I lived at home and did not need a "living wage."  Or rather, a "living wage" for me was effectively $0.00 because I was supported by my parents.  Had my employer been required to pay me a living wage, he wouldn't have hired me.  Since he didn't, he could afford to take a chance on me and I could learn some things about attention-to-detail, responsibility, timeliness, and all the other basic skills one needs to be a valuable employee.  It also meant that at my next, higher-paying job, I could say, "Yes.  I've had some experience."

Pricing certain jobs too high effectively closes out unskilled and low-skilled workers.  McDonald's is anticipating a hike in the minimum wage by experimenting with automated kiosks - the price of the kiosk being less than the "living wage" some politicians think they ought to pay.  Applebees and Chili's already have, in effect, "kiosks" at their tables where you can place your order and pay for it. Raising the minimum wage is pricing a significant number of workers right out of the market all together.  Other chain restaurants are doing so, too.  Walmart had been phasing out automatic check-out counters because customers don't care for them, but they'll keep them in if the government tells them they have to pay people more than the market justifies.  This doesn't mean any of these businesses are evil or greedy.  It means they can't ignore market realities the way governments think they can.

This entirely understandable, even necessary response to over-pricing non-skilled labor (which is what raising the minimum wage does) will also deprive young people and other low-skill or high-risk people the job opportunities they need to be able to develop skills which can then translate into higher paying jobs.  Black youth unemployment in the U.S. is near 50%.  Care to make it 70%?  Raise the minimum wage.

It isn't taking care of poor people.  It's putting the first rung on the ladder of economic improvement that much higher off the ground.

 

Implicit in the question is the desire to see people as well off as possible, or at least above the poverty line.  The end goal, raising the standard of living of the poor is a Christian one; however, the means advocated by “living wage” proponents is not, nor is it economically wise.

 

 If legislated, a “living wage” mandate would create more unemployment and poverty hurting those it claims to help.  Wage rates, like all market prices, are based on the laws of supply and demand.  If the cost of labor goes up, the demand for labor falls.  No business would be showing good stewardship if they paid employees more than what the employees produced the company.  Such tactics would certainly be a recipe for failure putting everyone out of a job earning zero dollars.  That is why, if government at any level were to mandate a “living wage”, the demand for labor would drop and unemployment would rise. 

 

Another way to look at this is to suggest mandating lower prices of essential goods so that those deemed “not making enough” could afford them.  If wage rates are determined in a capricious manner, then certainly other goods are too.  Of course they’re not and by imposing a price ceiling on these necessities it suddenly becomes unprofitable for businesses to supply as many. 


The idea that artificially raising the price of labor to a “living wage” level is good for the local economy is easily dismissed by asking this question: if it is good for the local economy for businesses to pay a “living wage” of, say, $400 a week then wouldn’t it be even better for the local economy to force businesses to pay a “living wage” of $2,000 a week?  Why not $100,000 a week?  It bears repeating that if government forces the cost of labor to increase, then the demand for labor will decrease and unemployment will rise.  This hurts the local economy.  Furthermore, with fewer people working there are less goods and services produced, which puts upward pressure on prices.  Higher prices hurt the poor the most. 


To be fair, I’m not sure Ms. Vandergrift advocated mandating a “living wage,” but may have been encouraging businesses to do this voluntarily.  Although I would support a business owners right to pay whatever he and his employee agreed upon, I would not call paying an employee more than the value he or she earns the business good business.  I would suggest that doing so is more appropriately called charity (municipalities can’t be included as voluntarily paying workers a “living wage” since their income is derived via force whereas private businesses derive their revenue via voluntary trade).  Either way this type of thinking fails to understand opportunity costs.  The higher wages must come from somewhere.  It could come at the cost of fewer jobs as mentioned above.  It could come at the expense of offering fewer benefits.  It might be taken from the amount of retained earnings used to reinvest in capital in order to expand production in the future (which would raise wages).  It may come from producing fewer goods and thus purchasing less resource inputs that would hurt those in that area of the economy. 

 

 Municipalities that choose to pay their workers more create more costs for taxpayers.  The money taxpayers lose to fund the higher wage rates of city employees means less money to spend on the things they feel are necessary.  Those places taxpayers would have spent their money don’t receive as much business as they would have, which means fewer jobs they can offer or lower wage rates they can afford. 

 

 Finally, to call the “living wage” movement a method of seeking justice distorts the meaning of justice.  Mandating a “living wage” would be the opposite of justice.  No third party, whether an individual or a group (i.e. gov’t), has the legitimate authority to tell two people they cannot make a voluntary agreement.  Individuals have the right to trade their labor services (which they own) for whatever compensation they want and individuals have the right to offer employment for whatever rate they choose.  Both parties have the right to accept or reject, but no third party has legitimate authority to intervene in such an agreement.  Forcing businesses to pay a “living wage” would violate the rights of employer and employee to negotiate an agreed upon wage.   Such actions certainly have no basis in scripture.  

Religious leaders and religious publications may and should express that Christians have a responsibility to the poor and needy, but they should not offer public policy solutions without any understanding of economics and without conceding that other well-intentioned Christians who wish to achieve the same ends may not agree with the expressed means. 

 

Economics is a science based on God-created laws that people can’t wish away anymore than the law of gravity.  Policies cannot violate these laws without negative consequences. 

 

 

 

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