Last summer we marked the 75th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of the Fair Labor Standards Act – a landmark law that protected children, limited the number of hours in a workweek, and established the nation’s first minimum wage. The genesis of that law is often traced back to the story of one little girl who managed to get a poignant letter in the hands of the campaigning president. The note read:
“I wish you could do something to help us girls. We have been working in a sewing factory, and up to a few months ago we were getting our minimum pay of $11 a week. Today the 200 of us girls have been cut down to $4 and $5 and $6 a week.”
During this season of Lent, as we ponder the deep meaning of our faith, we also contemplate what that faith teaches us about the inherent dignity of every human being, how it compels us to better listen to one another, and why we must always strive to better serve one another.
This past January, a passionate crowd of Marylanders raised their voices in unison outside the State House, calling on our leaders to “raise the wage.” Just as that courageous young girl called on FDR more than 75 years ago, our lowest-paid workers and their allies are once again calling on their leaders to listen and to stand up for human dignity. I joined their rallying cry that night and I agree; we must move our nation forward and build an economy with a human purpose.
In 1965, CEOs made 20.1 times the pay of the average worker. By 2012, CEOs made 273 times the pay of the average worker. Between 1979 and 2007, the richest 1 percent of American households saw their income rise by 281 percent, or more than $973,000. Meanwhile, the poorest Americans saw an increase in their income of only 16 percent, or $2,400.
Today, there are mothers in America who work 40 hours a week and cannot afford to feed their children. There are fathers who work 40 hours a week and cannot afford to shelter their family from the cold. As long as this is the case, can we say we have done right for the least of our brothers and sisters? No person who works full-time and plays by the rules should be forced to raise their family in poverty.
The good news is, a strong majority of Americans now support raising the minimum wage nationally. But we needn’t wait for the federal government to act. That’s why I have proposed raising the minimum wage in Maryland to $10.10 per hour.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, doing so would give 455,000 workers a raise, generate $456 million in new economic activity during the phase-in period, and generate or support approximately 1,600 new jobs in our state alone.
But this issue transcends politics and policy. Our faith teaches us that when prosperity is not shared by all, we all become poor; that when laborers are treated by the powerful as an expendable resource, instead of as co-equal humans with dignity, we have failed to live in accord with our beliefs. We can do better. We must. And I believe we will.
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley is serving his second term in office. Prior to serving as governor, O’Malley served as Mayor of the City of Baltimore. He received his bachelor’s degree from Catholic University and his law degree from the University of Maryland. Martin and his wife, Katie, a District Court judge, have two daughters, Grace and Tara, and two sons, William and Jack. They are members of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church.