The Missouri Catholic Conference is the political lobbying arm of the Bishops of Missouri, especially towards the actions of state government. For all of the various public policy issues that are– or should be– informed by Catholic principles, and also for those policies that will affect the Church and her activities, the Conference is charged with representing the Bishops with the relevant civil institutions. The Conference does a ton of great work and is staffed by knowledgeable and dedicated people.

That being said, there are often areas of public policy that, though there is an undoubted Catholic interest, fall within the realm of prudential judgement. In other words, there is a legitimate case for differing opinions among Catholics of good will, and Church teaching or dogma is not directly implicated.

Enter the minimum wage.

The Missouri State Legislature is considering a bill to prevent the state of Missouri’s minimum wage from exceeding the federal minimum wage by repealing the automatic adjustment for inflation, and the Catholic Conference is actively opposing it. This wouldn’t be the first time the Conference has sought to increase, or to prevent the decrease, of the minimum wage. In a sense, it is a reflexive position born of many years of equating concern for the poor with state welfare legislation. This equating of government action with charity (or, even more inexactly, justice) is not dictated by Catholic teaching. But if you read the conference materials, you might think so.

Sound economic theory shows that having (or increasing artificially) a legally mandated “minimum” wage tends to hurt the poor and those who are part-time workers or who are just entering the job market. It adversely affects the employment rate, and ultimately the real wage of those workers who do get or keep jobs, in that it will cause an increase of the cost of living.

But there is also room to oppose the minimum wage within the bounds of Catholic teaching. I may post later a guest piece on the subject, but in the meantime let’s take a look at the great social encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno, by Pope Pius XI, with my emphases and comments:

66. The just amount of pay, however, must be calculated not on a single basis but on several, as Leo XIII already wisely declared in these words: “To establish a rule of pay in accord with justice, many factors must be taken into account.”

[…]

69. It is obvious that, as in the case of ownership, so in the case of work, especially work hired out to others, there is a social aspect also to be considered in addition to the personal or individual aspect

70. Conclusions of the greatest importance follow from this twofold character which nature has impressed on human work, and it is in accordance with these that wages ought to be regulated and established.

71. In the first place, the worker must be paid a wage sufficient to support him and his family. That the rest of the family should also contribute to the common support, according to the capacity of each, is certainly right, as can be observed especially in the families of farmers, but also in the families of many craftsmen and small shopkeepers. But to abuse the years of childhood and the limited strength of women is grossly wrong. Mothers, concentrating on household duties, should work primarily in the home or in its immediate vicinity. It is an intolerable abuse, and to be abolished at all cost, for mothers on account of the father’s low wage to be forced to engage in gainful occupations outside the home to the neglect of their proper cares and duties, especially the training of children. Every effort must therefore be made that fathers of families receive a wage large enough to meet ordinary family needs adequately. But if this cannot always be done under existing circumstances, social justice demands that changes be introduced as soon as possible whereby such a wage will be assured to every adult workingman. It will not be out of place here to render merited praise to all, who with a wise and useful purpose, have tried and tested various ways of adjusting the pay for work to family burdens in such a way that, as these increase, the former may be raised and indeed, if the contingency arises, there may be enough to meet extraordinary needs.

The modern economy that is tearing families apart has already wreaked much damage, and perhaps it is now only as a bitter jest that one might ask if the Catholic Bishops should not be lobbying to ban women from the workforce in the majority of occupations that tax the “limited strength of women”. But keep your pitchforks closeted. I cite this paragraph to state that the grave problem of the necessarily-two income family remains. But wait, one might say, “Isn’t raising the minimum wage designed to render the two income family unnecessary?” The short answer is no, because the lowest wages in the economy are not designed with the support of a family in mind. All of the factors that lead to increased cost of living hurt the poorest families most. Artificially increased costs and inflation, and the inability of part-time low-wage work to exist, makes it that much more necessary for the poorest families to send mom to work outside the home.

72. In determining the amount of the wage, the condition of a business and of the one carrying it on must also be taken into account; for it would be unjust to demand excessive wages which a business cannot stand without its ruin and consequent calamity to the workers. If, however, a business makes too little money, because of lack of energy or lack of initiative or because of indifference to technical and economic progress, that must not be regarded a just reason for reducing the compensation of the workers. But if the business in question is not making enough money to pay the workers an equitable wage because it is being crushed by unjust burdens or forced to sell its product at less than a just price, those who are thus the cause of the injury are guilty of grave wrong, for they deprive workers of their just wage and force them under the pinch of necessity to accept a wage less than fair.

73. Let, then, both workers and employers strive with united strength and counsel to overcome the difficulties and obstacles and let a wise provision on the part of public authority aid them in so salutary a work. If, however, matters come to an extreme crisis, it must be finally considered whether the business can continue or the workers are to be cared for in some other way. In such a situation, certainly most serious, a feeling of close relationship and a Christian concord of minds ought to prevail and function effectively among employers and workers.

74. Lastly, the amount of the pay must be adjusted to the public economic good. We have shown above how much it helps the common good for workers and other employees, by setting aside some part of their income which remains after necessary expenditures, to attain gradually to the possession of a moderate amount of wealth. But another point, scarcely less important, and especially vital in our times, must not be overlooked: namely, that the opportunity to work be provided to those who are able and willing to work. This opportunity depends largely on the wage and salary rate, which can help as long as it is kept within proper limits, but which on the other hand can be an obstacle if it exceeds these limits. For everyone knows that an excessive lowering of wages, or their increase beyond due measure, causes unemployment. This evil, indeed, especially as we see it prolonged and injuring so many during the years of Our Pontificate, has plunged workers into misery and temptations, ruined the prosperity of nations, and put in jeopardy the public order, peace, and tranquillity of the whole world. Hence it is contrary to social justice when, for the sake of personal gain and without regard for the common good, wages and salaries are excessively lowered or raised; and this same social justice demands that wages and salaries be so managed, through agreement of plans and wills, in so far as can be done, as to offer to the greatest possible number the opportunity of getting work and obtaining suitable means of livelihood.

75. A right proportion among wages and salaries also contributes directly to the same result; and with this is closely connected a right proportion in the prices at which the goods are sold…

So, there is more to it than to ask, “Hmm, should Joe make more money?” There is a connection not only among all in society that is affected in ways seen and unseen when wages or other costs are artificially tinkered with. There is also a very imminent connection between the employer and employees– a two-sided equation. Why cannot we rely upon men of good will with a stake in the game to come to agreements on wages, rather than to allow the state to dictate terms? In other words, though one as a Catholic might favor such a minimum wage, another can just as “Catholic-ly” oppose it. As a friend of mine emailed me:

To me, the above makes it clear that we are not bound by Church teaching to always push for a higher minimum wage since basic economics tells us that the imposition of higher wages arbitrarily will always result in greater unemployment. This is clearly against the common good. Is it better to have fewer people able to work at a higher wage, while more are unemployed, or to have essentially full employment but at slightly lower wages? My prudential judgment is that it is better for more to have access to the dignity of work, albeit at a lower wage.

I respectfully suggest that the Catholic Conference not make one side of this prudential judgement be the only side it would label as Catholic.

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