A New Question for Minimum Wage

Let’s ask a different question about our country’s minimum wage.  Not because the other facets of this issue are not important or fascinating.  On the contrary, we should continue civil debate on the potential economic impact of raising the minimum wage.  We should keep our discussion lively about corporate regulation and corporate power.  We should ask the timeless constitutional question of state versus federal authority.  And we ought to keep that elephant in the room, income inequality, right here in the room with us. 

But I want to ask a different question:  Do we believe that Work is good?

For now, let’s use that simple question as a guiding star and follow where it leads.  First, let’s clarify the question itself.  As Christians who are concerned with public justice, do we believe that “Work” is good?  Do we believe that vocation, employment, responsibility, and contribution to the common good are “good”?  Is all that Work entails God-ordained and God-blessed?

Yes.  Christians throughout the ages have upheld the goodness of Work.  This theme revealed itself in various ways in the story of scripture, beginning with humanity’s responsibility to tend Eden all the way to Paul’s admonition that the dishonest should now “do something useful with their own hands that they may have something to share with those in need” (Ephesians 4:28).  Then came centuries of theological reflection, which resulted in such multifaceted and august terms as the Cultural Mandate, the Common Good, and the Theology of Work.  The shared message has been that Work is part of humanity’s lineage of creativity as image-bearers of the One who has made all things. 

Our trail continues.  If Work, as an abstraction, is good, then why do we experience such ambivalence toward it in reality?  When we reflect theologically on “Work” we can enthusiastically praise it as a good given by God.  But, of course, our jobs are less than ideal.  They are lived out in a complex world of sin - and the death, power struggles, and toil that come with it.  And so our reflection on Work must take into account the truth that we work our specific jobs in the midst of both Work, which is good, and sinful humanity, which is not. 

Still, Work is good.  Sin can only confuse, not change that.  And Christians should be champions of this truth.  So now I ask, Should we be compensated for doing Work?  Yes.  Well, how much?  Or rather, is it okay if some jobs simply don’t pay well enough to support a family or reach the minimum guidelines we have set as a society for “poverty”?  The easy answer is yes.  I do not expect that the teenager who baby-sits my children once a week will be compensated with what is commonly called a “living wage.”  Is it okay, then, that there are simply some jobs which will always be “entry-level” in their compensation?  In the affluence of America, many people may temporarily look for an “entry-level” position.  And they are happy to do so.  For the college student with a safety net, however, these positions are not entry-level as much as they are disposable – Taken up and tossed aside for myriad reasons.  Others do not have that luxury.  It may be the difference between putting food on the table or not.  There are thousands of such jobs which are full-time.  This is the reality we live in.  The question becomes, how should we feel about that, knowing that Work is good? 

And what kind of cultural ethos has this created (or been the product of)?  Can it possibly live up to the dignifying nature of Work?  And what message does that send to those workers?  “Well,” our society implicitly says, “find another job.”  “Be motivated to work harder.”  We operate on the belief that having an inadequate or undignified job is the great motivator to get a “better” job.  This does not promote the dignity of Work and the worker. It promotes the idea that Work’s primary purpose is to get ahead in the world, to move from entry-level to a “real” job.  But “getting ahead” is a far cry from valuing honest Work as a dignifying God-given gift.  The message is that some jobs are not valued and some Work is not dignified.  These other people, these other jobs – their Work has earned them the right to be above welfare income standards.  But your work…well, it doesn’t deserve that.  More often than not, this message does not increase motivation.  It increases despair.  Have we totally written off such jobs as outside the sphere of Work and the dignity of quality compensation? If so, should jobs like that exist? 

I am not suggesting that everyone in society should be paid the same.  But we have allowed the conversation to revolve around a lot of uncertainties instead of this simple certainty:  Work is good.  Follow this belief where it leads and we should be alarmed at our cultural attitude toward Work.  And, yes, some of this attitude is due to the way we compensate our lowest paid workers for their Work.  We love corporate profits and consumer goods and the convenience of cheap fast food.  Do we love the people who give us those things?  Americans are known the world over for our commitment to work.  But we are a culture obsessed with work, not Work.  We value certain skills and education in people.  We do not often value their Work in general.  We began with a relatively simple question.  Let’s end with a more provocative one.  

Can vocations that pay so little live up to the dignity of God’s image, which we bear when we Work?

-Dan Carter is a husband, father, neighbor, reader, runner, and Senior Pastor of Calvary on 8th St. located in Holland, MI.  www.calvaryreformedholland.org