Minimum wage, ethical questions

The federal minimum wage took another jump to $7.25 per hour in July 2009 in what proponents say is a step toward economic justice for society’s most vulnerable workers. But with unemployment peaking at 10 percent in 2009 and teen currently at over 24%, others argue that a delay would have been wiser — and more righteous than putting additional jobs at risk.

The question of what it’s fair to pay workers — what it takes to live on; what businesses can afford to pay; and what, morally, is the right thing to do — continues to be a hot debate, and one that’s not limited to the federal stage. Coalitions of labor officials, religious leaders, students and activists are pushing for higher wages in communities and on campuses across the country, particularly for low-wage jobs.

Religious leaders from many traditions say it’s morally unacceptable for someone working full time to earn less than what it takes to provide their families with food and shelter. But this is a controversial issue — a debate, in part, over free-market forces vs. government restrictions. Some say that raising wages will mean the lowest-paid workers could lose other benefits and possibly even their jobs, because businesses that can’t afford the higher costs will cut back or even shut down.

In many places, the issue will be argued as much on moral as on economic terms. ReligionLink provides resources for exploring all aspects of the debate.


Minimum wage

On May 25, 2007, President George W. Bush signed a bill that raised the federal minimum wage for the first time in a decade. The new law called for a three-tiered increase, with the floor rising from $5.15 an hour to $5.85 in 2007; to $6.55 in 2008; and to $7.25 an hour on July 24, 2009.

At the old minimum, which had stood since 1997, a full-time worker earned $10,712 a year. That income placed a single person less than $1,000 above the 2006 poverty line of $9,800, and put a single parent with two children more than $5,000 below the poverty line. Advocates of change say the federal minimum wage hasn’t kept pace with inflation, so a worker’s buying power is constantly being eroded.

Some cities and states have passed their own minimum-wage measures — which generally apply to all companies doing business in that jurisdiction, although some exempt small businesses with few employees.

Living wage

Some cities and states have passed or are considering “living-wage” legislation — a narrower set of rules, which often apply only to wages paid by contractors doing work with the government. The idea is to pay workers enough so that when they work a 40-hour workweek they have enough money to provide for themselves and their families. The city of Baltimore passed the first modern living-wage legislation in 1994; since then, roughly 140 cities and counties have done the same — most setting wages at $9 to $11 an hour — and other local campaigns are under way.

Why it matters

This is an economic issue with significant grass-roots momentum – and a moral and ethical twist. Much of the energy comes from people of faith, who press these questions: “What is government responsible for? What should businesses be required to do? And what do working citizens deserve?”


  • “Delay the Minimum-Wage Hike”

    Read a June 12, 2009, Wall Street Journal op-ed column arguing that the third increase in the minimum wage should not be carried out because of the high unemployment rate. It’s written by David Neumark, an economics professor at the University of California, Irvine.

  • “Working Poor and Young Hit Hard in Downturn”

    Read a Nov. 8, 2008, New York Times story about how the working poor and young are hit particularly hard by the faltering economy.

  • “Wedge Issue: Minimum Wage”

    Read a May 1, 2006, Wall Street Journal story analyzing the politics of minimum-wage campaigns – and the effort by some to portray it as an issue of moral values.

  • “What Is a Living Wage?”

    Read a Jan. 15, 2006, New York Times Magazine story about living wage legislation.

National sources

For higher minimum wages

  • Jared Bernstein

    Jared Bernstein is Vice President Joe Biden’s chief economist and economic policy adviser. Before taking that post, Bernstein was director of the Living Standards Program at the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank. He is the author of All Together Now: Common Sense for a Fair Economy.

  • Harry J. Holzer

    Harry J. Holzer is a professor of public policy at Georgetown University, senior fellow at the Urban Institute and nonresident senior fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. He wrote the December 2008 Brookings report “Living Wage Laws: How Much Do (Can) They Matter?”

  • Stephanie Luce

    Stephanie Luce is an assistant professor of labor studies at the City University of New York. She has conducted numerous studies on the effects of minimum-wage laws in the U.S. and is the author of Fighting for a Living Wage, which found that communities that successfully passed living-wage laws haven’t always had as much success in implementing them.

  • Responsible Wealth

    Responsible Wealth is a Boston-based network of businesspeople, investors and affluent Americans – drawn from among the wealthiest 5 percent of Americans, its Web site says. Responsible Wealth pushes for a higher minimum wage and asks business people to sign a covenant promising to pay their employees at least $8 an hour. Mike Lapham is project director. Mike Leyba is the director of communications.

  • Paul Sonn

    Paul Sonn is legal co-director of the National Employment Law Project. He has worked at designing and implementing living-wage policies in low-wage industries for more than a decade. He founded and co-directed the Economic Justice Project at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, which merged with NELP in 2008.

Against higher minimum wages

  • Anthony B. Bradley

    Anthony B. Bradley is a research fellow with the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, based in Grand Rapids, Mich. Bradley has written that raising the minimum wage hurts teens and low-skilled minorities. He has linked the Black Lives Matter movement to Christianity in a commentary.

  • John Doyle

    John Doyle is managing director of the Employment Policies Institute, a nonprofit research group which has funding from the food and beverage industry, and which contends that raising the minimum wage could lead to a loss of jobs. When wages go up, the institute argues, employers respond by hiring fewer people.

  • National Federation of Independent Business

    The National Federation of Independent Business is an advocacy group based in Nashville, Tennessee, that represents the interests of small businesses. The federation opposes efforts to raise the minimum wage, saying such measures have ripple effects on the economy and can hurt entry-level workers. Email through the website.

    Contact: 800-634-2669.
  • National Restaurant Association

    The National Restaurant Association opposed the minimum-wage increases. The association contended that relatively few minimum-wage workers are trying to support families and that such legislation would be too expensive for restaurants.

    Contact: 202-331-5900.
  • Richard S. Toikka

    Richard S. Toikka, a lawyer and economist, is principal with Farkas and Toikka, a law firm in Washington, D.C. He is co-author of a study released by the Employment Policies Institute in Washington, D.C., in May 2005, which concluded that the impact of increased income gained through a living-wage ordinance was offset by the loss of other government assistance. So, the report states, “living wage ordinances do little to actually increase the standard of living for low-income families.”

    Contact: 202-337-7802.

Religious groups

In many communities, the debate over minimum-wage and living-wage proposals is being presented as a moral issue – a question of values. Many religious traditions teach the importance of protecting the downtrodden and the poor. Many also speak of honoring the Sabbath as a day of rest – something difficult to do for a person working more than one job to meet the basic expenses of living. And in nearly every state, religious groups are weighing in on this issue – usually in favor of giving people a raise.

  • Interfaith Worker Justice

    Interfaith Worker Justice, based in Chicago, tries to organize people of faith in the United States to push for better working conditions, benefits and wages for low-income people. Its Web site states that “among the key principles shared by all faiths are the importance of paying workers fairly for their labor and the right of workers to perform their responsibilities with dignity.”

  • Stephen Copley

    Stephen Copley is chair of the board of the Let Justice Roll Campaign, a coalition of 90 faith, community, labor and business organizations working to raise the minimum wage. It sponsors annual “living wage” days, which this year fell on Jan. 10-11, 2009.

  • Methodist Federation for Social Action

    The Methodist Federation for Social Action, with offices in Washington, D.C., is an independent group of Methodists concerned with peace and justice issues, including economic justice. Chett Pritchett is the executive director.

  • Michael Namath

    Rabbi Michael Namath is program director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. The Religious Action Center is the Washington, D.C., office of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, a joint office of the Union for Reform Judaism (representing 900 congregations with 1.5 million Reform Jews) and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, whose membership includes more than 1,800 rabbis. Read a summary of this group’s advocacy on behalf of higher wages. Read Namath’s statement from a June 29, 2006, news conference asking the U.S. Senate to raise the minimum wage – in which he says that helping people become self-reliant is the highest form of tzedakah, or charity, in Judaism.

  • Unitarian Universalist Service Committee

    The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee is a voluntary, nonsectarian organization working to advance justice throughout the world.

  • United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

    The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is an organization that works “to unify, coordinate, encourage, promote and carry on Catholic activities in the United States.”

    The USCCB favors raising the minimum wage. In a policy statement, updated in February 2006, the bishops contend that a higher minimum wage would benefit women, minorities and the poor the most, and would not lead to joblessness. The bishops also say that “wages must be adequate for workers to provide for themselves and their families in dignity.”

    Contact: 202-541-3200.

Ethics organizations

  • W. Maurice Young Centre for Applied Ethics

    The W. Maurice Young Centre for Applied Ethics is located at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C. It focuses on the research on and teaching of applied ethics in fields such as science and technology, health, research, and animal welfare.

  • Emory Center for Ethics

    Center for Ethics at Emory University in Atlanta focuses on the study of ethics in decision-making. The Center focuses on four pillars: health, science, and ethics; citizenship and the public good; organizational and corporate ethics; and ethics and the arts. Paul Root Wolpe is director.

    Contact: 404-727-3150.
  • Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics

    The Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University studies and researches ethics in professional and private life. Eric Beerbohm is director.

  • Consortium Ethics Program

    The Consortium Ethics Program at the University of Pittsburgh is a regional health care ethics network. It educates health care professional and institutions in clinical health care ethics. Rosa Lynn Pinkus is director.

  • Ethics Resource Center

    The Ethics Resource Center is a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization whose vision is a world where individuals and organizations act with integrity. Its focus is organizational ethics. It is based in Arlington, Va. Contact through the website.

    Contact: 703-647-2185.
  • Dartmouth College Ethics Institute

    The Dartmouth College Ethics Institute at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH focuses on applied and professional ethics, ranging from medical and business ethics to teaching and research ethics. Aine Donovan is director.

  • Institute for Global Ethics

    The Institute for Global Ethics is an international group working to promote ethical behavior in individuals, institutions, and nations through research, public discourse, and practical action.

  • Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

    The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, Calif., is dedicated to researching modern ethical issues and attempting to create solutions in diverse fields such as bioethics, the Internet, government and character ethics.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Sheila D. Collins

    Sheila D. Collins is a political science professor and director of the Master’s Program in Public Policy and International Affairs at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J. She is a co-founder of the National Jobs for All Coalition and author of Let Them Eat Ketchup: The Politics of Poverty and Inequality. Read a 2005 interview with Collins, in which she advocates for full employment at fair wages, at

  • Kenneth A. Couch

    Kenneth A. Couch is an associate professor of economics at the University of Connecticut. He has done research showing that increasing the minimum wage reduces the employment of some of the most vulnerable categories of workers, including teenagers and adults who lack a high school degree.

  • Richard B. Freeman

    Richard B. Freeman is the Herbert S. Ascherman professor of economics at Harvard University in Cambridge. He also directs the Labor Studies Program at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Freeman has written that research shows that increasing the minimum wages has little or no effect on the number of jobs available.

  • Sara Niccoli

    Sara Niccoli is a program representative at the New York State Nurses Association,  She is a former executive director of the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition.

  • Robert Pollin

    Robert Pollin is a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and co-director of the university’s Political Economy Research Institute. He is co-author of The Living Wage: Building a Fair Economy. Read a June 2003 paper he wrote evaluating the impact of living-wage policies in a number of U.S. cities.

  • Sandra L. Strauss

    The Rev. Sandra L. Strauss, a Presbyterian minister, is director of public advocacy for the Pennsylvania Council of Churches. The council worked to build support for the state’s minimum-wage law, which involved a tiered series of increases.

In the South

  • Peter Arcidiancono

    Peter Arcidiacono is an assistant professor of economics at Duke University in Durham, N.C. Arcidiacono is the co-author of a 2004 study that concluded that increasing the minimum wage would decrease a worker’s chances of finding employment.

  • William P. Quigley

    William P. Quigley is a law professor and director of the Law Clinic and the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola University New Orleans. He is the author of Ending Poverty as We Know It: Guaranteeing a Right to a Job at a Living Wage.

  • Jeanette Smith

    Jeanette Smith is executive director of South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice. This coalition of clergy and lay leaders has worked to raise the minimum wage and to tie it to the rate of inflation.

  • Melissa Snarr

    Melissa Snarr is an associate professor of ethics and society and a Christian social ethicist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. Her research focuses on political and religious ethics, social change, religion and war and religion and politics.

  • Aaron Yelowitz

    Aaron Yelowitz is an associate professor of economics at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. He has written about unintended consequences of living-wage legislation – saying, for example, that paying higher wages can lead to the loss of other benefits for low-income families – and testified as an expert witness in 2004 regarding living-wage legislation in Santa Fe.

In the Midwest

In the West

  • David Card

    David Card is a professor of economics in the Institute of Industrial Relations at the University of California at Berkeley. He and a colleague, Alan B. Krueger, did research on the impact of an increase in the minimum wage in New Jersey on fast-food restaurants. They found that a small increase in the minimum wage did not adversely affect employment levels.

  • David Coss

    David Coss is mayor of Santa Fe, N.M. He supported Santa Fe’s much-debated living wage legislation.

  • Jonathan Klein

    Rabbi Jonathan Klein is executive director of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, an interfaith group from the Los Angeles area that advocates on behalf of the working poor.

  • David Neumark

    David Neumark is an economics professor at the University of California, Irvine. Neumark co-authored a July 2005 analysis called “A Decade of Living Wages: What Have We Learned?” That report concludes that living-wage laws have increased salaries of the lowest-wage earners, but there have been some adverse effects too, and more policy changes are needed to help the most disadvantaged.

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