Living is earning a sufficient wage
Todd David Whitmore
The Common Good
One of the remaining questions that the University's Task Force on Sweatshop Initiatives must address is that of the living wage. My own position is that we should uphold the living wage. The first reason for doing so is the improvement such a wage would bring about in the lives of the workers. The second is that the living wage has been a standard part of modern Catholic social teaching from its inception with Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum through the latest documents. Both of these reasons are often cited.
There is a third reason, however, that is often missed: the lack of a living wage severely curtails and even violates a person's right to life. This fact is substantiated in a wide range of studies that have appeared in journals from The New England Journal of Medicine to The British Medical Journal. Such studies appear under academically inflected titles such as "The Increasing Disparity in Mortality between Socioeconomic Groups in the United States, 1960 and 1986," but the point is sufficiently clear: If you deny someone a living wage, you rob them of a significant portion of their life.
What leads to this loss of life is a variety of factors — for instance, long-term stress, illness, malnutrition, lack of health care — with different factors becoming predominant in different circumstances. Just how much of a person's life he or she is denied is hard to determine in any specific instance, but studies like the above can generalize and estimate that in the circumstances of the U.S. 20 years or more can be lost (The circumstances are frequently worse abroad.). What the studies miss are the instances of increased infant and child mortality in families that do not earn a living wage. In a family where there is no living wage, more than one person is denied years of life.
The American Catholic Bishops recognize the ways in which the lack of living wage and the frequently attendant lack of adequate health care impact children. "The lack of basic healthcare — and factors tied directly to poverty — have been documented in the tragic reality that poor children are twice as likely as other children to have physical or mental disabilities or other chronic health conditions that impair daily activity. Our nation's continuing failure to guarantee access to quality health care for all people exacts its most painful toll in preventable disabilities, deaths, and sickness of our infants and children." When death is involved in these cases, much more is lost than 20 years. A living wage would cover such health care.
Catholic teaching often distinguishes between "quality of life" issues on the one hand and "right to life" issues such as abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment on the other. What the research data indicate and what the teaching also affirms is that even with quality of life issues there is a floor beneath which the lack of quality becomes a matter of a right to life. This is the force behind the Second Vatican Council's admonishment "to remember the saying of the Fathers: `Feed the man dying of hunger, because if you have not fed him you have killed him.'"
The American Bishops put the matter into their own words in reference to the global economy: "In our hearts, we know something is wrong as we watch children die on the nightly news. We need to link those heartbreaking pictures of hunger and desperation to the structures of debt and development, conflict and violence which contribute — directly or indirectly — to the death of those children."
The lack of a living wage is part of the current global "structures of development." The living wage identifies that floor beneath which persons begin losing not simply this or that quality of life but also life itself.
What goes under the name of mere sustenance is not sustenance at all because it does not, in fact, sustain persons over the long haul. Eking out survival on substandard rations day after day takes its toll and eventuates in premature death for oneself and one's loved ones. The living wage — that wage which can support and sustain a life of dignity — is necessary. It is, ultimately, a matter of the right to life. That is why it is called a "living" wage.
There are a number of objections to the living wage both as a concept and as a concrete desideratum. Critics claim that it cannot be calculated and that if calculated that it would be wrong to implement. I will take up these concerns and others next time.
Todd David Whitmore is an assistant professor of Theology. His column appears every other Thursday.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Thursday, April 6, 2000