Think about this: If you made the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, would you be able to maintain and keep up the life you have now? If you are honest, the answer is probably no. And, if you are really honest, you’d probably say that not only would it be hard, but you’d miss many of the privileges that you are accustomed to daily.
If this reality is true for you and for me then why has it been so hard to get minimum wages increased across the country? If we are a democracy that says the worth and value of every person is important and matters, a livable wage should matter as well.
When we look at the city planning and gentrification that is taking place around the country, we realize that there isn’t a place in our country where a person making the federal minimum wage can afford a two-bedroom apartment. Seven major cities in the U.S. account for half of the country's overall gentrification. Those number continue to rise and spread as the impoverished do not have access to living wages and affordability.
The lack of a living wage plus the rise of inflation has contributed to the suffering of many people experiencing displacement, homelessness, and extreme poverty in our country. Some politicians know this and are taking the crisis seriously. Cities like Chicago have seen its minimum wage steadily rise in the last several years, from an hourly rate of $8.25 in 2014 to $13 today.
It has taken collaboration from politicians, activists, and groups alike to get the wage bumped up for those working hourly jobs. Governor J.B. Pritzker of Illinois has been proactive in helping to raise the wage across the state. He recently signed a bill that would ensure an hourly rate of $14 in 2024 and $15 in 2025, or higher if inflation rises faster.
But the question still remains, why hasn’t the entire country gotten on board with the increase? What’s keeping our nation at a standstill while inflation continues to rob the fullness of life for those working hourly jobs?
Poverty is a moral issue that we must address in our country, and poverty is often fueled by low wages. An increase in the hourly wages is taking a step in the right direction. Rev. William Barber III, co-chair of The Poor People’s Campaign has led a moral fusion of people from all faiths, traditions, and backgrounds to stand against the issue of poverty in our country. He has said that “poverty in the U.S. is the greatest moral issue of our time.” This work is important because as we head towards election time, the plights of the poor are often polarized or forgotten.
On May 5th, Rev. Barber mentioned in a message at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City that “poverty is much bigger than a ‘right or left conversation,’ because the ‘right and left’ conversation is too puny of a framework to use in dealing with a moral issue like poverty.”
Little pay and discrimination should not be the unjust punishment for the working poor in the U.S. In her book, Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich informed us that “millions of Americans work full time, year round, for poverty-level wages, and in fact they are the real, and those same working poor are the philanthropists of our society.” Why? Ehrenreich argues that the working poor sacrifices time and effort to ensure that those who have privileges are able to enjoy those privileges. She goes on to say, “they neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else”
Since Ehrenreich wrote these words nearly 20 years ago, the situation has only gotten more dire. A recent report released by Market Watch revealed that missing one paycheck or more could put half the workforce in financial ruin. Households considered “liquid asset poor” wouldn’t have enough savings to live at the poverty level for three months if their income were interrupted. Additionally, such financial strains are worse for people of color in this country.
How can we allow people to continue suffering with low wages?
We have seen glimmers of hope through movements like The Poor People’s campaign and grassroots movements like Fight for $15. They both have made major strides in keeping the conversation about the poor at the center of the conversation in our country.
Fight For $15 has recently had a huge victory on the state level. According to Vox, “Organizers achieved a $15 minimum wage for fast food workers by convening a wage board. Wage boards have the authority to mandate pay scales and benefits for whole industries, after consultation with businesses and unions.” The reason I believe this is a huge victory is because this approach places workers on a path to use sectoral bargaining to help low wage workers reach a collective agreement for better wages for the fast food sector. If victories like this persist, agreements could help employees work with employers to achieve more livable wages at the state level.
In the coming months, it is my hope that we see more movements include the voices of those who experience poverty in our country and to hold decision makers accountable. It is also important for people that claim a faith tradition to fight and advocate for the “abundant life” that is preached in pulpits across the country. If we believe that God cares for all, shouldn’t that include a fair wage?
We know God cares for the poor, because Jesus talked about it in his first message in Luke chapter four, which quotes Isaiah,
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
And as Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in Strength To Love, “God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty.”