The Living Wage in Catholic Social Teaching
Just as there is a just price for commodities, it must be stated even more emphatically that there is a just price for one’s labor. This is known in Catholic Social Teaching as the “living wage”:
“Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.”
In fact, St. John Paul II suggested that a low regard for human labor, which causes work to be priced too low, degraded men, led to unemployment, and exacerbated poverty—a point on which he was later affirmed by Benedict XVI.
The living wage is not, therefore, a number. It is a standard of judgment and is elastic. It will change depending on time and place, but this does not mean that it is entirely arbitrary. Whether or not a wage is just can be determined by the application of several measures:
- Are families in general living at a standard of decency appropriate to their society?
- Are they able to accomplish this without working extremely long hours?
- Are women and/or children forced to work at inappropriate tasks, at inappropriate hours, or under inappropriate conditions in or for the family to subsist?
- Can families provision themselves without recourse to government assistance?
- Can families provision themselves without recourse to consumer credit?
While the actual wage amount that qualifies as living, and therefore just, may vary, it must always satisfy the demands suggested above. This is why we describe it not as a figure but as a dynamic standard. Also, it should go without saying that this standard requires the application of human judgment and cannot be left to the determinations of the market, which are always stacked in favor of capital and will never result in a just wage.
We can also mention that even in purely economic terms, a living wage is beneficial for a society. Wages pressured always and everywhere to a minimum naturally minimize demand, which leads to recession, which leads to failures in supply, which leads to stagnation. The living wage is therefore a practical as well as a moral principle.
Leo XIII complemented this teaching with an added warning—that it is better, concerning these issues, to have recourse to the intermediate associations which we’ve already discussed:
“In these and similar questions, however—such as, for example, the hours of labor in different trades, the sanitary precautions to be observed in factories and workshops, etc.—in order to supersede undue interference on the part of the State, especially as circumstances, times, and localities differ so widely, it is advisable that recourse be had to societies or boards such as We shall mention presently, or to some other mode of safeguarding the interests of the wage-earners; the State being appealed to, should circumstances require, for its sanction and protection.”
The reasoning here is of course according to the principle of subsidiarity, and it is appropriate because a local association is in a much better position to determine the needs of the parties involved. Having once more referred to these intermediates, which are unfortunately all too rare in our day, we can illustrate their purpose by adopting a historical example of such an organization: the guild. This will also give us a working example of the other principle related to this economic order.