What do we talk about? In Christian circles, some topics receive little attention or thoughtful conversation because of difficult subject matter. We hope this iAt series “Topics Christians Should Discuss” provides meaningful content for you to ponder, and we encourage you to begin or continue hearty conversations following what you read. Leave a comment if there is a topic you’d like us to address.
We should be no strangers to economic injustice. As of January 2023, 64% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.1 For many Americans, and people across the world, work is no more than a way to make a living, a way to catch up with the ever-rising cost of living. However, a Christian worldview should instruct us to view work not just as a way to survive, but, as the USCCB writes, “a form of continuing participation in God’s creation.”2
Many of us are familiar with the idea of a minimum wage, or the legal minimum employers are required to pay their employees. Currently, some are pushing what is called the “Fight for 15,” an initiative to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25, which has not been changed since 2009.3 Some states and cities have raised their minimum wages to fit with their cost of living, and some areas provide laws for government employees to make higher than the federal minimum wage but do nothing for non-government employees. Economists differ on the benefits of raising the minimum wage.
While these discussions are important, we can take the question of wages a step further — to the idea of a living wage. A living wage is calculated by considering the material needs—“nutritious food, safe and secure housing, transportation, clothing, utilities, education, health care”—a family experiences based on their geography.4 The idea of a living wage is a more holistic picture, one that includes those areas which we should consider imperative to a person’s ability not just to scrape by, but to thrive.
“The idea of a living wage is a more holistic picture, one that includes those areas which we should consider imperative to a person’s ability not just to scrape by, but to thrive.”
The lamentable reality is that many Americans are not thriving, and are not earning the living wage needed to provide for themselves and their families. The USDA estimates that 54 million Americans experience food insecurity and 23.5 million live in food deserts.5 Housing crises are not new to Americans, and, in many cities, renters statistically must work multiple full time minimum wage jobs to afford rent.6 Gas prices are unpredictable, and America has a remarkable lack of public transportation options for those who cannot afford or do not have access to a vehicle. Education is under threat, as teachers are in high demand, shootings are more than prevalent, and many districts are stripping curriculums of essential learning areas. Well-paying jobs often require high levels of education, education that is not accessible to many people. Millions of Americans experience inadequate health insurance and overall health care.7 We’ve seen headlines of children, primarily of immigrant families, having to work in illegal conditions to support their families’ livelihood.8 This issue extends beyond American borders to sweatshops where impoverished people manufacture goods they will never be able to afford themselves.
Further, immigrant workers, women workers, and Black, Indigenous, and workers of Color all lose out on wages compared to their white male counterparts. A study by the Pew Research Center published in March 2023 found that women are still only making an average of 82% of what their male counterparts make.9 There are several factors that contribute to this disparity. Black, Indigenous, and Women of Color make even less to the dollar compared to white men.10 In 2021, Black women made $0.63 for every dollar made by white men; Hispanic and Latina women made $0.58 per dollar.11 Black, Indigenous, and Men of Color continue to make less compared to their white counterparts as well.
These unjust realities are compounded with broad trends forecasted in the economy. Food prices will continue to rise in 2023, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.12 SNAP benefits have reduced as of the beginning of March 2023, causing many working families to lose out on nearly $100 each month on groceries.13 Rent and housing prices across the country have continued to rise. While some localities have pushed for higher minimum wages, these higher wages do not reach many workers.
These recent conditions may seem overwhelming, especially in America where access to all of these necessities is a privilege for most. As we consider what is “fair” for others whose life, education, and work experiences may look different than our own, we must consider the wise words we all learned in Sunday school — “love your neighbor as yourself.” Whatever we consider necessities for ourselves and our own families we should consider to be necessities for our neighbors, whether or not we think they are deserving of them. For, as pastor and economist Edith Rasell writes, “Having everyone’s needs met is God’s vision for society.”14
“Having everyone’s needs met is God’s vision for society.”Edith Rasell
Rasell is a former United Church of Christ minister for economic justice. In her article, “Does ‘Abundant Life’ include a Living Wage?”15 she studies the economic circumstances of the Israelites during three different eras and what biblical writers and Jesus said about economic justice in the context of John 10:10—that Jesus came so that we might all have abundant life that extends beyond only the spiritual sphere. Although “economic instructions” differed among these eras, a common theme remained: “the instructions called for livelihoods for all that enabled thriving or, in our language today, full employment in living wage jobs.”
Rasell considers the parable of the vineyard owner in Matthew 20. She writes, “Their pay was determined by the similarity of what they needed, not by the differences in the labor they contributed. The vineyard owner’s generosity seemed unfair to the workers who had labored all day. Maybe it seems that way to us today.” Our economy today divides workers into categories such as “low-skilled,” “high-skilled,” “university educated,” or “undocumented.” According to Rasell, these categories should not exist; our main consideration in compensation should be what is needed, not by measuring contribution, productivity, and output. Jesus is not denying the need for humans to work, and to do work well.
One quote from Rasell that resonated with me was the following: “Jesus understood God’s intention for God’s resources was for them to be shared so all could thrive, regardless of our flawed understandings of worthiness and deservedness.” Our ideas about who is deserving of adequate wages can be reimagined when we see resources as something God gives for us to share amongst each other, not for us to compete for.
While this issue is one that must be addressed with policy, we can personally do a lot to promote living wages for our neighbors. When we hire babysitters (who may be saving for college or still covering the cost of tuition), we can choose to pay them enough to help them survive their circumstances and save for the future. When we go out to eat or grab a coffee we can tip our servers generously to affirm the essentiality of their work. As consumers, we can choose which employers we are promoting by making a statement with our spending. When we shop, we can do our due diligence to research the ways large companies manufacture their products and support their employees at all levels (I’m looking at you, Amazon). We can have discussions in our own communities and workplaces. Do our children’s teachers make enough to live on, or do they have to take up a second job on nights and weekends? Are the custodians at our church compensated in a way that is reflective of the importance of their work to keep the church running? There are many ways we can advocate for ourselves and our neighbors.
At the end of his essay addressing gun violence for this series, Caleb Schut wrote, “A different world is possible, not just in the age to come but in this age.” At the beginning of her first essay on mass incarceration, Joya Schreurs wrote that we often pray for God’s kingdom to come, but “these requests often land weakly at God’s throne, inanimate from our refusal to suspend our comfort to make them reality.”
“Loving our neighbors should be uncomfortable.”
While the title of this series is “Topics Christians Should Discuss,” we must go further than just conversation in each of these areas. Thoughtful conversations that do not lead to action will achieve little to bring the kingdom to fruition. When we trust that the kingdom is already here, we can be confident that God gives us power and authority to go further than discussion.
The fact that most Americans, and that many people across the world, spend their days and hours working in jobs that do not pay them enough to afford life’s basic necessities, should alone be enough to spur us into action. But if we find ourselves continuing to live in our place of comfort, of inaction, then we must talk about these issues with other Christians, learn from Christians who are working and writing and speaking on these issues, and reassess what we value in our own lives and what we can do to ensure our neighbors are living lives as full as we would want for ourselves and our families.
Loving our neighbors should be uncomfortable. It should be expensive. It should push us to reevaluate everything we’ve been taught about the worth of our labor, about what it means to “work hard,” about how we categorize jobs and what we assume of people working certain jobs. It should push us to stand up for our coworkers who are of a different race or gender than us and advocate for equal and fair pay. We can have the confidence to act, to reject worldly conventions of worthiness, and to do justice.
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, https://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catholic-social-teaching/the-dignity-of-work-and-the-rights-of-workers ↩
Rasell, Edith. “Does ‘Abundant Life’ include a Living Wage?” Sojourners, April 2023, https://sojo.net/magazine/april-2023/does-abundant-life-include-living-wage. ↩
Bauchard, Nicole. “Three Roommates or Four Jobs Needed to Afford a Two-Bedroom Rental on Minimum Wage.” Zillow, 31 January 2023, https://www.zillow.com/research/minimum-wage-rent-32060/ ↩
“The State of U.S. Healthcare in 2022.” Commonwealth Fund. https://www.commonwealthfund.org/publications/issue-briefs/2022/sep/state-us-health-insurance-2022-biennial-survey ↩
Dreier, Hannah. “Alone and Exploited.” The New York Times, 25 February 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/25/us/unaccompanied-migrant-child-workers-exploitation.html ; Leonhardt, David. “Child Labor Today.” The New York Times, 26 February, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/26/briefing/migrant-child-labor.html
Ibid, Sojourners. ↩
Ibid, Sojourners. ↩