In Connecticut, we happily receive goods and services from many people — retail workers, home health aides and food service workers — who are paid less than the poverty level. We ought to do better. And there is a growing understanding that we can.
On Dec. 1, a state legislative advisory panel on low-wage workers agreed, recommending that Connecticut establish a $15 minimum wage. Earlier this year, the Connecticut Conference of United Church of Christ also asked the legislature to set the minimum wage at $15 per hour, effective 2019. The conference also asked its member churches to review compensation of their staff and develop plans to pay at least $15 per hour.
Why should a religious community such as the United Church of Christ be concerned about the state's minimum wage?
The UCC and other religious traditions speak clearly to matters of injustice, expecting their members to work actively for justice. For example, the UCC has a history of advocating for the end of American slavery and school segregation. Economic and racial injustice and environmental degradation are now abiding concerns of the UCC.
The current $9.50 minimum wage in Connecticut is manifestly unjust. Connecticut has one of the highest standards of living in the United States. Yet, the annual income for a minimum-wage worker for a 40-hour workweek is several thousand dollars below the federal poverty level for a family of four. That is indefensible.
Senior Minister Damaris Whittaker of the First Church of Christ in Hartford points out that a rented two-bedroom apartment in Hartford, Bridgeport or New Haven might cost $1,500 a month — unaffordable to a full-time worker making $10 an hour, or $1,600 a month. The United Way of Connecticut calculates that the cost of the basic essentials of housing, child care, food, health care and transportation is more than $60,000 annually for a family of four. To reach this annual income after taxes requires a wage of more than $30 an hour.
Economist Steven Fazzari of Washington University in St. Louis says that not raising the minimum wage substantially leaves many workers "without the ability to afford a decent life, despite working hard at a full-time job. [This is] fundamentally unjust in a rich society."
Taxpayers also effectively subsidize the employers of low-wage workers who remain in poverty. Because the wages are so low, many of those workers receive government housing assistance, food stamps and Medicaid — all paid for by taxpayers.
Although not ideal, $15 an hour is nearly 50 percent higher than the current minimum wage. In recent months, two states have moved to phase in a minimum wage of $15 per hour — California by 2023 and New York by 2019. Recognizing the stress that immediate implementation might have on small businesses, both states implement a $15 wage more slowly for small businesses. Massachusetts has a minimum wage of $15 per hour for home health and food service workers. Many other cities and counties across the country have increased their minimum wage — some to $15.
Businesses recognize that a higher wage increases worker morale, decreases staff turnover and attracts better-qualified job applicants. The Aetna in Hartford sets its minimum wage at $16 per hour. IKEA has recently raised its minimum wage — twice. The second time because the first increase was so successful.
A more robust minimum wage also helps our economy. A low-wage worker, the vast majority of whom are age 20 and older, with higher pay will spend it for more goods and services in the local economy — encouraging local businesses to hire more workers. Higher-paid workers help all of our state's economy.
The practical and moral imperative is clear. A person working full time should not remain in poverty. An American society with integrity cannot justify paying people a poverty-level wage. The UCC believes that we can pay our low-wage workers fairly and remain a robust society and economy. How we treat and pay our lowest-paid workers is a measure of who we are and aspire to be as a people.
This blog post originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Hartford Courant on Dec. 4, 2016.
Rev. Kent Siladi is the Director of Philanthropy for the National Office of the United Church of Christ.