A Catholic perspective on the minimum wage

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The late great Monsignor Marv Mottet, an Ottumwa native and former director of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (the social arm of the Catholic Church in the United States), used to talk about the two feet of social action as being those of charity and justice.

The foot of charity is well-received in society because it generates a “feel good — one with humanity” kind of sentiment in us. It is socially acceptable because it is practiced by saints, religious organizations, civic groups and well-intentioned individuals. The hallmarks of charity are food pantries, bus-tickets, homeless shelters, and handouts that satisfy the immediate needs of people.

The foot of justice, on the other hand, is not always so well accepted, and its effects not so immediate or obvious. Justice addresses the root causes of hunger, homelessness and poverty. It can be controversial, because it is practiced by organizers, activists and prophets. The hallmarks of justice are community organizing, advocacy and political involvement. Justice looks for long-term results.

Johnson County, along with Wapello, Linn and Polk counties were one step ahead of the Iowa Legislature by passing a minimum wage ordinance within the last two years. Leaders in these communities were looking for long-term results and benefits. But the Iowa Legislature has negated these ordinances by scaling back the minimum wage to what it was nine years ago — probably because they couldn’t get away with turning wages back to the level they were in 1917.

For us not to see an increase in the minimum wage in nine years, when the cost of living continues to climb, is reprehensible. It is impossible to live in Johnson County with an hourly wage of $7.25 — even for a single person, let alone a family!

I believe that the local ordinances that were passed are a moral good. And I believe this for a number of reasons.

For one, an increase in the minimum wage can mean the difference between a living wage and mere survival. Therefore an increase in the minimum wage is a matter of justice, not charity. Low-wage workers are looking for a hand up, not a handout. And an increase in the minimum wage helps low-wage workers and their families attain and maintain a decent standard of living. It means families have the ability to pay rent, cover prescription and medical costs, and occasionally rest from their labors with a family night out.

All this improves the quality of life — for everyone. It increases worker loyalty and decreases turnover. It helps keep people on payroll and off the public dole. It means more purchasing power for workers and stimulates the local economy. And, of special significance — it helps alleviate the stress that comes from financial worries and thereby contributes to the psychological and emotional stability of breadwinners and families. And since in Catholic thinking the family is the nucleus of society, our society is more stable.

And, who doesn’t want a more stable society?

By law, employers can revert to paying the old minimum wage. But legal and moral are not necessarily synonymous. No, there are moral implications as to how we treat workers, how we invest in our community and how we promote the common good. These are the questions employers should be asking themselves and these are the questions consumers need to be asking before frequenting certain businesses. And more to the point, in the downward spiral of wages, who is it that has to bear the brunt of the kind of regressive legislation we are seeing in 2017?

The two feet of social action are absolutely necessary, but charity should never pre-empt justice. So, I wonder if employers and legislators in Des Moines had to live on the minimum wage if their take on the minimum wage would be any different? But, then again, the shoe would be on the other foot, wouldn’t it?

• The Rev. Rudolph T. Juárez is pastor at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Iowa City.

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