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It’s Not About TVs, Mr. President

Yesterday morning, President Obama gave a speech at a Costco store in Maryland to highlight his initiative to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $10.10 per hour. I didn’t hear the speech in its entirety (the full text is here), but I did hear a clip from the speech in which he praised Costco’s CEO, Craig Jelinek, for setting his company’s starting wage at $11.50 per hour:

And leaders today, business leaders today, some of them understand this same concept. Costco’s CEO, Craig Jelinek, he understands this. He feels the same way. He knows that Costco is going to do better, all our businesses do better when customers have more money to spend. And listen, Craig is a wonderful guy, but he’s not in this for philanthropy. He’s a businessman. He’s looking at the bottom line. But he sees that if he’s doing right by Costco’s workers, then they can buy that 80-inch TV, too.

sharp80inch-1I wish he hadn’t said that last bit. I get that he was making reference to an earlier portion of the speech where he had joked about an 80-inch TV on sale at Costco, and that he was making the point that a higher minimum wage is as good for businesses as it is for employees. But I also get that for the working poor, a higher minimum wage is not a joking matter, and that the need for better wages isn’t about wanting an 80-inch TV.

From 2010 to 2012, I worked two retail jobs, both of which paid slightly over minimum wage but well under the proposed $10.10/hour. I had a 26” TV that was a gift from my parents, and I didn’t have cable. Every month was a struggle to make ends meet. For the first year (until I was eligible for benefits from one of those employers), I had no health coverage and no dental coverage. My medical plan was “don’t get sick, and if you do, raid the emergency fund to buy what you can over the counter to treat it.” Routine maintenance on my vehicle was put off more than once. Even modest Christmas presents for my daughters required saving months in advance. Worst of all was the constant, unrelenting stress about money, knowing that even getting a flat tire would be a financial catastrophe. And when I took another job that paid the equivalent of $14.29/hour, my first move wasn’t to go buy a bigger TV; it was to try to get caught up on the bills I had fallen behind on.

My experience was far better than many. I certainly didn’t think of myself as poor during that time, and while paying the rent was sometimes a struggle I was never in real danger of becoming homeless. The same is not true for everyone. I recently talked to a homeless couple who had been subsisting in minimum wage jobs after being laid off because of the recession. Extended unemployment had eaten their savings, and medical expenses had left them unable to pay their rent, rendering them homeless. The husband had found part-time, minimum wage work, and the wife was working two minimum wage jobs. They were saving to try to scrape together the security deposit and two months’ rent to try to get a modest apartment. They weren’t looking for a handout, and they certainly weren’t dreaming dreams of 80-inch TVs. Their dreams were of having a safe place to lay their heads at night, and of being able to buy groceries in the store where the wife worked instead of having to rely on food pantries and soup kitchens.

Scripture, interestingly enough, has quite a lot to say about fair pay for workers. In the Old Testament, the Lord announces that

“Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow, and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.” (Malachi 3:5)

Even the most passing survey of the OT prophets shows that this passage is not unique; God’s judgment is regularly pronounced upon “they [who] sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way”. (Amos 2:6-7) Jesus, sending his disciples out in mission, tells them to “Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid”. (Luke 10:7) If itinerant preachers deserve to be “paid” in such a way as to have their basic needs met, then certainly people whose labors contribute to the growth of businesses deserve to be secure in their basic needs, too. From the perspective of Scripture, then, the treatment and payment of workers is not just a matter of economic import or social import, but a matter of moral and spiritual import as well.

There are a lot of good reasons to raise the minimum wage, and a lot of good reasons for businesses to pay their workers well. I applaud the president for making this a major policy initiative, and I certainly applaud Mr. Jelinek for paying his workers more than the minimum. It does a real disservice to the working poor, however, to imply, even jokingly or by accident, that this is about helping people buy 80-inch TVs or other luxuries. It’s about working people being able to feed their families and house them in safe environments. It’s about people being fairly rewarded for their labor. It may or may not be a business-savvy thing to do; it may or may not be a politically popular thing to do; but the bottom line is, it’s the right thing to do.

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