A livable wage and human dignity
President Biden’s rescue plan, recently passed by Congress, is the most significant boost to the American economy since the New Deal. In addition to providing immediate relief to the millions who have lost their jobs in the pandemic, it substantively addresses poverty, which has become all but invisible politically for at least four decades.
The major component omitted was a $15 minimum wage. The White House, however, is poised shortly to reintroduce it. The results for those barely getting by will be dramatic. The fate of the poor is consigned to the vicissitudes of the politics and the market. Encoding a $15 minimum wage into federal law will be a major step toward structurally reducing poverty in America.
Ethics and politics are tightly conjoined, virtually inseparable. When pondering ethical issues my mind turns to first principles and builds up from there. The governing first principle is human dignity and respect.
The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. This standard means that American society has built into its economy a large fraction of the population who by necessity will be forced to live at or below a subsistence level. We have created a society that has institutionalized poverty and its commensurate misery: $7.25 per hour translates into people working full time and not being able to earn an income sufficient to meet basic human needs — housing, food, clothing, medical care, etc. — for their families and themselves.
I have long been skeptical of the often-heard claim that the pre-COVID economy was strong. Yes, strong for the moneyed, for those with ample stock portfolios — but not for the working poor, the people who live paycheck to paycheck, struggling perpetually to meet their bills and having less than $400 in savings. That’s 40 percent of the working public. Often these are people who work in substandard jobs, laboring for contractors and subcontractors, with no security, no benefits, little control over their work hours, no union protections, and — to get to my controlling point — little dignity.
The argument against raising the minimum wage is that it will be unaffordable for small businesses and force small business owners to let go of workers, thus increasing the number of unemployed.
A few observations: In the first instance, we should not be speaking of a “minimum wage,” but a “living wage.” Also, the bill to raise the minimum will phase it in in over several years, allowing the economy to expand in the interim.
But the primary issue relates to basic assumptions. The rejection of a livable wage looks to the market as the governor of policy. It’s a presumption I reject. Human dignity and need should be our reference point, which opens the door to other approaches, other political requirements.
The right to a livable wage is a fundamental human right. The United States, under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt, was a prime mover in the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. The Declaration outlines economic as well as political rights, rights which the United States — to its shame — is too often ready to neglect, not only in practice, but in principle.
Article 25, paragraph one, states: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”
The standard is the preservation and protection of human dignity.
If a person is compelled to eat his or her next meal out of a garbage can, to live on the street, or lacks the ability to meet basic needs for survival, then we can rightly conclude that one’s dignity is impugned. If the economy through its normal mechanism cannot ensure that standard of dignity, then it becomes the obligation of the state to step to guarantee that that standard is met. That is what a “right” means. The individual has a claim — and it is a hard claim — against the government which that government is obligated to recognize and fulfill.
Eighteen years after the Universal Declaration, the UN introduced for ratification the two human rights covenants; the International Covenant of the Civil and Political Rights and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. These documents separate the two types of rights outlined in the Universal Declaration and expand them. They are the pillars of the international law of human rights. Some may be surprised to know that while the United States has ratified the Covenant on Civil Rights, we have failed ratify the Covenant on Economic Rights.
The reason the United States has not ratified the Economic Covenant is because the official position of the United States government is that economic rights are not rights. The Europeans accept that they are. The Canadians do. The United States does not. If you are looking for a reason why our country remains the sole industrialized nation without universal health care, you can readily find one here.
Other Western states take economic rights seriously, which means that it is the obligation of government to ensure the economic viability of its citizens. This an unenviable way in which the United States remains exceptional. Hence, we have vast pockets of America that are economically indistinguishable from the developing world.
Once more, the starting point is the preservation of human dignity. With that value as the foundation, I submit we need to radically reimagine the premises and structure of our economy. We need to move toward the equitable redistribution of wealth and enforce government’s role to ensure that equity so that all our inhabitants can live a life of dignity. A federally guaranteed livable wage would be a critical step in that direction.
Dr. Joseph Chuman recently retired after 46 years as the clergy leader for Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County in New Jersey. He is also professor of Human Rights at Columbia University.