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Envisioning a just wage economy

| Monday, November 5, 2018

Economic inequality should be considered the most pressing issue of our time, but unfortunately two generations of politicians and policymakers have failed to confront it, in marked contrast to Americans of the New Deal era (the subjects of my two prior columns).

At all levels, from individual households to titanic corporations, problems of pay demand our attention, intersecting related struggles for inclusion and equality. Persistent gender wage gaps, stubborn discrepancies in unemployment rates by race, and widening gulfs between the salaries of executives and everyone else — all these point to the fundamental problem of alarming and increasing income disparities.

Here in the US, far too many people struggle with making ends meet on a weekly basis. Living hand to mouth, too many households must rely on multiple wage earners (sometimes working multiple jobs), and even those who do get by are only one work accident, job loss or family illness removed from disaster. In short, too many people are increasingly compelled to participate in what we might call a “just hope and pray” economy, where they literally must hope and pray that they and their loved ones will avoid a variety of worst-case scenarios each day.

Taking Catholic Social Teaching (CST) as inspiration, in particular Pope John Paul II’s claim that “a just wage is the concrete means of verifying the justice of the whole socioeconomic system,” the Higgins Labor Program at the Center for Social Concerns is confronting the question of increasing inequality by convening an interdisciplinary group of scholars and students drawn from the humanities, social sciences, business, and law. This Just Wage Working Group probes the foundational question: What makes any given wage just or unjust?

Our response has been the development of a Just Wage Framework identifying seven criteria that collaborate to compose a just wage. In our view, a just wage must: 1. enable a decent life for the worker and her household; 2. permit asset-building; e. offer basic social security; 4. bear no taint of discrimination of any kind; 5. not be excessive; 6. reflect participation by workers; and 7. consider performance, qualification,and type of work. We are currently converting these criteria into an online Just Wage Tool, which we hope to unveil in spring 2019.

Our approach is designed to promote reflection, dialogue and action by not only employers and workers, but also professors, policymakers, professionals and parishes — that is, all stakeholders invested in moving us away from a “just hope and pray” economy and toward a “just wage” economy. We also think it offers a way to circumvent the bitter fights that dominate our public sphere while at the same time not avoiding the challenging questions about rights, fairness and opportunity that bedevil the contemporary workplace.

We live in particularly polarizing times, where politics and economics get pitched by partisans as zero-sum endeavors with winners and losers separated by borders both geographical and cultural. But our Just Wage approach takes a different tack, foregrounding the multiple interconnections linking all of us. Here are a few examples.

First, by listing seven core criteria but not ranking them in importance, we aim to underscore their interlocking and inseparable nature, visualized less as bullet points and and more as a honeycomb of hexagons. Because the criteria are not ranked, our hope is that those with different perspectives will find this inviting rather than off-putting. Moreover, by asserting the importance of inclusion (a just wage must be free from discrimination), we foreclose any sidestepping of the racial and gender segmentation that unfortunately still structures labor markets in the U.S. (a half-century after the Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination in employment).

Second, as the image of a honeycomb of hexagons suggests, we see the Just Wage Framework embedded within, and intimately connected to, broader political, social and environmental structures — a reminder that a wage, whether just or unjust, is not solely determined by the employer-employee relationship. It is also shaped by government policies on everything from health care to housing, from transportation to training and education. Whether embodied in legislation or not, however, certain core values, again rooted in CST, undergird our Just Wage Framework: a belief in the dignity of every human person, a commitment to the common good, and a fidelity to the practice of sustainability — not only at the level of the natural environment, but also at the level of the organization. In other words, when advocating for the promotion of a just wage, we must be sensitive to sustainability on multiple levels, from the ongoing vitality of the natural habitat within which the economy operates to the long-term viability of the individual enterprise employing and paying workers.

Third, while we have rooted our efforts in CST principles, the Just Wage Framework and Tool are designed for use by any and all stakeholders (Catholic and non-Catholic alike). Because CST appeals to fundamental, widely shared, values, we believe these principles should be transferable to people regardless of religious affiliation. Beyond that, CST’s insistence on humans as inherently relational and social beings facilitates a framework foregrounding interconnectedness, inviting us to think not only about minimums (wage floors and poverty thresholds) but also maximums (wage ceilings and excessiveness), as well as the relationship between the two. Ultimately, then, CST principles have helped us distinguish our Just Wage Framework from other “living wage” models through an emphasis less on dollar figures, especially minimums and more on a holistic view combining many components, both quantitative and qualitative.

A just wage, as we envision it, is more robust and relational than other wage conceptualizations, and we hope our Just Wage Framework and Tool will promote public and private-sector policies not only rooted in widely shared values but also conducive to more widely shared wealth.

Professor Graff teaches courses on labor, race, gender, and politics in the Department of History. He also directs the Higgins Labor Program at the Center for Social Concerns, where he co-convenes the Just Wage Working Group, a research collaborative investigating what makes any given wage just or unjust. He can be reached at [email protected].

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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