Introducing the

Just Wage
Initiative

Just Wage Forum 2021

Criterion 1: Wage enables decent life for worker and household

A just wage covers the basics necessary for a minimally decent life for a worker and the worker’s household, including hours of work that are predictable, not excessive, and provide regular rest to facilitate a decent life away from work. Further, a just wage rests upon a healthy and safe working environment mitigating stress and facilitating flourishing, providing paid time off in the form of personal days, vacation, and in times of sickness of the worker or another household member. Ultimately, a just wage provides resources, in the form of both pay and time, that foster the worker’s self-development socially, culturally, and spiritually.

What does CST say about a wage enabling a decent life?

 

Catholic social tradition (CST) is quite explicit that a just wage provides a decent life for the worker, starting with but also going beyond a good paycheck to include stable, regular, and reasonable hours; a safe and healthy work environment; and an overall employment scenario providing resources for self-development both at work and outside of work. Further, CST clearly states that these core components fostering a decent life apply not only to the worker directly but also the worker’s entire household. Importantly, too, CST insists that employers alone are not responsible for fulfilling these conditions; the community through government policy must also play a role in ensuring an economy that promotes a decent life for workers.

In the US context, workers and their advocates began arguing for a “living wage” in the late nineteenth century. Ever since, a “living wage” has meant an income permitting the worker and the worker’s family to escape poverty and enjoy the basic minimal standards for a good life (shelter, food, clothing, transportation, and the like). Catholic thinkers have been central to that conversation, most notably Rev. John A. Ryan, who published A Living Wage in 1906 and worked with a broad spectrum of reformers from the Progressive Era to the New Deal to sponsor and realize minimum wage and maximum hour legislation.

While proponents have usually taken an expansive view of what a living wage encompasses, too often in the popular imagination it gets reduced to a dollar figure, losing its larger meaning. The MIT Living Wage Calculator, for example, is a wonderful tool for revealing what hourly wage is necessary for a full-time worker to support herself and her family in every county in the USA, but it cannot quantify important factors like workplace safety, environment, or opportunities for growth.

At CST’s core is a commitment to the essential dignity of every human person, so enabling people not just to survive, but to thrive -- that is, to live a decent life -- is an essential precondition for recognizing them for more than just their productive capacity to work. When a workplace fails to offer wages, hours, and resources that foster a decent life, it risks dehumanizing people as commodities. More broadly, it indicates injustice within the broader socioeconomic system. As Pope Francis put it in a 2019 speech, an economy detached from ethics fails to promote "a more just social order but leads instead to a ‘throwaway’ culture of consumption and waste.”

In our view, then, a just wage better describes all the factors that together combine to facilitate a decent life. By encompassing but expanding on a living wage, a just wage more fully promotes the flourishing of the worker and those in the worker’s household. As Pope Francis summarized in a 2016 address, “The just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labour is… a moral obligation. If we want to rethink our society, we need to create dignified and well-paying jobs... To do so requires coming up with new, more inclusive and equitable economic models, aimed not at serving the few, but at benefiting ordinary people and society as a whole.”

Below you’ll find a sampling of official Catholic statements articulating CST’s commitment to a wage that fosters a decent life for the worker and the worker’s family. These are arranged chronologically to show both the continuity and evolution of Catholic thinking and language over time, especially regarding gender. Earlier CST statements in particular use as default the male pronoun, expressing a conventional (if modern) understanding of ideal households populated by male breadwinners, female homemakers, and their children. While more recent pronouncements reveal a greater commitment to gender equality at work, an enduring preference for the breadwinner model of one wage-earning parent and one (unwaged) home caring parent suggests unresolved questions confronting not only CST but all advocates for a just economy, especially amidst a social reality where two adult incomes are increasingly common.

KEY CST PASSAGES

“The following duties bind the wealthy owner and the employer: not to look upon their work people as their bondsmen, but to respect in every man his dignity as a person ennobled by Christian character. They are reminded that, according to natural reason and Christian philosophy, working for gain is creditable, not shameful, to a man, since it enables him to earn an honorable livelihood; but to misuse men as though they were things in the pursuit of gain, or to value them solely for their physical powers - that is truly shameful and inhuman.” 
-- Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of Workers), 1891 (20) 

“In the first place, the worker must be paid a wage sufficient to support him and his Family.” 
-- Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno (After Forty Years), 1931 (71)

“The opportunity, moreover, should be granted to workers to unfold their own abilities and personality through the performance of their work. Applying their time and strength to their employment with a due sense of responsibility, they should also all enjoy sufficient rest and leisure to cultivate their familial, cultural, social and religious life.”
-- Pope Paul VI, Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope), 1965 (67)

“It should also be noted that the justice of a socioeconomic system and, in each case, its just functioning, deserve in the final analysis to be evaluated by the way in which man's work is properly remunerated in the system.” 
-- Pope John Paul II, Laborem Exercens (On Human Work), 1981 (19)

“Furthermore, society and the State must ensure wage levels adequate for the maintenance of the worker and his family, including a certain amount for savings.” 
-- Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus (The Hundredth Year), 1991 (15)

“What is meant by the word ‘decent’ in regard to work? It means work that expresses the essential dignity of every man and woman in the context of their particular society: work that is freely chosen, effectively associating workers, both men and women, with the development of their community; work that enables the worker to be respected and free from any form of discrimination; work that makes it possible for families to meet their needs and provide schooling for their children, without the children themselves being forced into labour; work that permits the workers to organize themselves freely, and to make their voices heard; work that leaves enough room for rediscovering one's roots at a personal, familial and spiritual level; work that guarantees those who have retired a decent standard of living.”
-- Pope Benedict XII, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), 2009 (63)

“An economic system detached from ethical concerns does not bring about a more just social order, but leads instead to a “throw away” culture of consumption and waste. On the other hand, when we recognize the moral dimension of economic life, which is one of the many aspects of social doctrine of the Church that must be integrally respected, we are able to act with fraternal charity, desiring, seeking and protecting the good of others and their integral development.”
-- Pope Francis, Address of His Holiness Pope Francis to the Members of the Council for Inclusive Capitalism, 2019

 

This page was last updated on November 22, 2021. It was written by Dan Graff, Emily Merola, Edward Prein, and Anastasia Reisinger, with research contributions from Clemens Sedmak.

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