RESPONSE: JUNE 2018 ISSUE

Everyone Deserves a Living Wage

United Methodist Women’s focus on economic inequality calls us to demand a living wage for all.

Everyone Deserves a Living Wage
United Methodist Women staff rally for a living wage.

Every person has the right to a job at a living wage. —The United Methodist Church Social Principles, ¶163.C

Imagine supporting a family of four on the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. That is only $15,080 per year before taxes—a rate that has not been raised since 2009. But it costs a family at least $15.84 per hour ($28,829 per year) to meet the basic needs of housing, food, transportation, health care, child care, clothing and personal care items. Earnings that help provide these needs is called a living wage. These costs are even higher in large urban centers.

Many states and municipalities set a higher minimum wage, while some states rely on the federal rate. All workers should be able to earn enough to support their families.

United Methodist Women and ending economic inequality

As part of our advocacy priority focusing on economic inequality, United Methodist Women units and members are mobilizing with allies at state and municipal levels for legislation that advances a living wage.

The living wage is a biblical issue. The prophets condemned depriving workers of fair pay for their labor. James 5:4 says, “Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” This is why The United Methodist Church has consistently affirmed a living wage for all (The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church 2016, Resolution 4135, “Rights of Workers”).

The big gap between minimum wage and living wage is a women’s issue. Women make up only 46 percent of the total workforce but make up three-quarters of low-wage workers. Women of color make up only 16 percent of the total workforce but make up 37 percent of low-wage workers. Women who struggle to make ends meet are more likely to be poor or fall into poverty if they lose a job or if anyone in the family gets sick. They are not able to save for contingencies.

The living wage is a family issue. Imagine the strain on families, on marriages, on parents wanting to spend time with their children, on meeting children’s needs. The number of low-wage workers has grown over the past 25 years. In many cases, these jobs do not pay vacation, holidays, sick days, health care or other benefits. Such benefits are critical to making ends meet for a family. In addition, as quality public education has eroded in many communities, families have sought to pay for private schools, adding to their expenses. Raising the minimum wage strengthens families.

The living wage is a racial justice and immigrant rights issue. For historic reasons, people of color in the United States are more concentrated in low-wage jobs. This undermines their ability to save and own homes (wealth) that they can pass on to their children. Over generations, they fall farther and farther behind in the racial wealth divide. Specific policies such as the GI Bill built wealth for white households, while policies such as red-lining or ballooning mortgages undermined wealth accumulation (particularly home ownership) for people of color.

For every dollar earned by white men, women of color, on average, earn far less. Latina women earn $0.54, American Indian or Alaskan Native women earn $0.59, African-American women earn $0.64.

As of 2010, the median family income for whites was $65,138, $40,785 for Latinos, and $39,715 for African Americans (Native American income data was not available). This gap has persisted over time.

United Methodist Women and ending the criminalization of communities of color

The living wage is linked to United Methodist Women’s focus on criminalization of communities of color and mass incarceration. School-to-prison pipelines, racial profiling, disparity in sentencing for drug offenses, criminalization of debt and fines, court emphasis on plea bargains and overpolicing have led to a disproportionate number of felony convictions for people of color. Once released, those with felony records have a much harder time finding good, stable jobs with benefits and are pushed into low-wage work if they can find work at all.

We must also pay attention to those being left out of the conversations on minimum wage. Even if we raised the minimum wage nationally, not everyone would benefit. In a deal President Franklin Roosevelt cut with Southern Jim Crow lawmakers to pass the New Deal, the Social Security Act of 1935 excluded black farmworkers and domestic workers from receiving unemployment insurance and social security retirement benefits. Sixty-five percent of African Americans were excluded from these programs at the time. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 excluded domestic workers and tipped workers, mostly black, from the new minimum wage.

Left out

Today, while farmworkers, domestic workers and tipped workers, now mostly immigrants of color, must officially be paid the federal minimum wage, in practice this is often not the case. The tipped minimum wage is $2.13 per hour, and tipped workers rely on tips, often enduring sexual harassment, to make up the difference. Many workers in restaurants and retail are not allowed to work a full 40-hour week and cannot count on a fixed number of work hours each week.

Workers also face wage theft. They are forced to clock out and work off the clock, are not paid overtime, must stay overnight without pay as home health workers, are re-categorized as salaried staff or are simply denied a paycheck for work performed.

Some, including certain disabled workers, very small businesses, teen trainees and certain full-time students are legally excluded from the minimum wage.

Mobilizing

United Methodist Women members are getting involved in efforts in their states, including municipal and state advocacy to raise the minimum wage as well as struggles against preemption laws in which state legislatures override municipal wage legislation.

We are also joining campaigns supporting farm laborers, domestic workers and tipped workers through partners including National Farm Worker Ministry, Restaurant Opportunities Centers-United, Caring Across Generations and National Domestic Workers Alliance. With Interfaith Worker Justice we are working against wage theft.

There are other important entry points for attaining a living wage. These include supporting cooperatives that create good jobs. They include challenges to corporate and state efforts to make teaching and nursing more precarious, relying on temp workers paid a fraction of professional salaries. They include challenging the “gig” economy in which everyone becomes “self-employed,” “self-exploited” and increasingly impoverished. They also include ongoing struggles for a strong social safety net, including affordable health care, housing, clean water, education, recreation and child care—all key elements of a living wage.

In a time of downward pressure on wages and rights in the workplace, the 99 percent who work for a living have much in common. Across race and class, more and more people are feeling the squeeze. Minimum wage workers represent those hardest hit, so United Methodist Women advocates to raise their wages. But it will take a coalition of the 99 percent recognizing common interests, working in mutual relationships, pulling together, refusing to be divided, to turn economic inequality around.

Find out what’s happening in your community

Go to the United Methodist Women Living Wage Map to find out about pending legislation and groups that are working for living wages in your state. Reach out to see how you can get involved: unitedmethodistwomen.org/living-wage-map.

Learn and educate

Go to the United Methodist Women Economic Inequality web page for program resources, unitedmethodistwomen.org/economic-inequality, where you can also sign up for e-mails. Reach out to faith, labor and community groups who are working on living wage concerns and invite them to speak to your unit. Join the United Methodist Women Economic Inequality Initiative Facebook community for ongoing information: Facebook.com/UMWomenEconomicInequality. Read the 2018-2019 mission study, What About Our Money? A Faith Response, and attend Mission u: unitedmethodistwomen.org/mission-studies.

Get involved and take action

Whether you plan to work at the city, county or state level, identify your elected officials and contact them. Meet with partner groups to develop a game plan; this may include meeting with elected officials, a media campaign, raising the issue in your local congregation, teach-ins and other activities to engage people. Follow the lead of those affected most by economic injustice and amplify their voices. In deep solidarity, United Methodist Women can help women and families thrive.


Carol Barton is executive for public action for United Methodist Women.

Posted or updated: 6/1/2018 12:00:00 AM
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