People of faith can celebrate today as the federal minimum wage increases from $6.55 to $7.25 an hour. After wages stagnated for a decade at a 1997 hourly rate of $5.15, today's boost is the third and final one in an annual series that Congress approved in 2007.
First implemented during the Great Depression, the minimum wage sought both to protect workers and to improve the economy by enhancing consumer purchasing power. Some argue that the market should naturally determine wages based on supply and demand, yet we have seen how an unchecked market has led to exploitation of workers and an even greater disparity of wealth that is dangerous for the economy as a whole. A minimum wage treats workers with dignity and keeps our economy on a healthy, sustainable base.
In addition to challenging any mandated price floor, opponents also say raising the minimum wage hurts small business. Yet a 2006 poll found that 86 percent of small-business owners deny that the minimum wage affects them. Indeed, many in the business community actually support a higher minimum wage not only because it shows workers respect, but because it leads to higher productivity with happier employees and lower turnover. Surprisingly, Fox News has also published an endorsement of the modest 70 cent minimum wage increase.
The church should approach wage conversations not primarily as economists, however, but as advocates for low wage workers. We can cheer today's wage increase as a step toward affirming that every person is made in the image of God. But $7.25 an hour is still not enough.
Just ask low-wage workers Joseph Fuller and Isabel Wang (not their real names) who work almost 40 hours a week, yet cannot cover their basic needs. 44-year-old Joseph lives in a D.C. homeless shelter that supplies his housing and food, and Isabel depends on a local Christian ministry to provide her with free clothing and groceries every week. As Joseph observes, "What I'm earning now is below the poverty line