Barber, Sanders and Raising the Minimum Wage: Making the Moral and Practical Arguments

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The Rev. Dr. William Barber II, known to Americans as the co-leader of the Poor People’s Campaign, a modern resurgence of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s final campaign, has founded a new center at Yale Divinity School, the Center for Public Theology and Public Policy.

The Center’s mission is to prepare a new generation of moral leaders to be active participants in creating a just society using the academic, practical, and research tools of past and present social justice movements.” The Center will collaborate with programs and initiatives within Yale Divinity School, at Yale College, and Yale Law School. It will also be a liaison to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) in the South. While the Center is located in a northern city and state, one of its goals is to “connect its programs to the history and work of southern freedom movements and institutions.” The Center, which was launched in December 2022, will carry out its mission through teaching, training and research.

In early June, Rev. Barber teamed up with Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) to rally in three cities – Durham, NC; Nashville, TN; and Charleston, SC – to make the moral case for a living wage. The federal minimum wage, at $7.25/hour, has not been raised in almost 14 years, and poverty is the fourth leading cause of death in the US, in the richest country in the world.

Because of the vital debt ceiling vote in the Senate, Sen. Sanders attended the June 1st rally in Durham virtually. He was able to attend in person at the Nashville and Charleston rallies, arguing in support of his proposed legislation to increase the minimum wage to $17/hour within five years. The bill is expected to be marked up in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions later in June. The $17 amount is based on an MIT study that found that a livable wage for a worker with no children in North Carolina is at least $16.83. What constitutes a living wage, of course, varies based on the cost of living and taxes in different cities, and many states have rates considerably higher than the federal level. South Carolina, in fact, has a state law that actually prohibits local governments from setting their own minimum wage, so the State’s minimum wage remains at the federal level – extremely difficult for workers subject to it.

According to an article in the Berkeley Political Review of UC Berkeley, written in 2021 during a debate about raising the federal minimum wage to $15/hour, “The real value of the minimum wage is 31 percent less than the real (adjusted for inflation) minimum wage in 1968, and 17 percent less than the real minimum wage in 2009.”

Barber and Sanders argue from a moral perspective that “anything less than living wages is sinful and oppressive,” not to mention a matter of life and death for millions. If one does not like the moral or religious argument, however, there are practical reasons behind the initiative. First, when workers earn a living wage, they will presumably spend more, which helps businesses and the economy in general. Second, according to Heidi Shierholz, president of the Economic Policy Institute, raising the minimum wage would also reduce inequality, poverty, and racial and gender wage gaps. Third, not mandating a minimum wage at the federal level allows employers with the power to suppress wages or to set very low wages will exercise that power – and they do.

Of course, many big business leaders and the politicians that benefit from the status quo have argued for years against raising the minimum wage. However, according to the Berkeley report, almost all of their arguments can be refuted – with evidence and facts.

  • Opponents claim that most minimum wage workers are teens working their first jobs. The facts do not bear this out: 96 percent of California workers who would benefit from the increase are over 20, and 58 percent over 30. The numbers are similar across the nation. In addition, it is marginalized communities – Hispanics, African Americans, and women – that are most likely to benefit from the higher rate.
  • The argument that raising the minimum wage will kill businesses or jobs is also defied by sound research. A study by the American Sustainable Business Council found that 61 percent of small business owners across the US support raising the minimum wage, and that percentage is even higher in the Northeast. (Perhaps not surprisingly, given the states in which the Barber-Sanders rallies were held, the lowest support is found in the South, at 58 percent.) Small business owners know that workers who earn a higher wage are often more productive, not less – because of higher morale, better health, less absenteeism and reduced “decision fatigue.”
  • Finally, a higher minimum wage will have virtually no impact on purchasing power. The hike might raise the prices of some goods and services, but the level is less than half of one percent for every 10 percent increase in the minimum wage, according to studies by economists at California State University, San Bernardino. Thus, contrary to the anti-raise argument, low-income workers can afford a wider range of purchases, even if the prices have increased slightly.

It is always important to compare how we do things in the US with other advanced nations. Wages in the Nordic countries in Europe, for instance, are set through collective agreements (Denmark and Sweden) or extension mechanisms to cover all workers at industry level (Finland, Iceland and Norway). These nations experience considerably less poverty than the US does. In our neighbor to the north, Canada, the federal minimum wage increased in April 2023 to $16.65 for all workers in industries regulated by the federal government. There are minimum wages set by the different provinces, which apply to varying categories – and all are considerably higher than the American rate of $7.25.

Theology and practicality meet over the minimum wage issue. For Rev. Barber, theology is not an isolated practice, but must necessarily challenge the things that adversely impact people’s lives. As he pointed out, “the Bible touches more than 2,000 times on the subject of poverty, helping the poor and how to treat ‘the least of these.’ But it has little to say on abortion, sexuality, or prayer in school” – issues at the top of the right wing’s list these days.

Americans owe it to ourselves and our neighbors to support bills, like those of Sanders and state legislators, that will improve people’s lives.