I am one of those people who believes that we, as a society, have a responsibility to the least among us: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned, the poor, the homeless, etc. I would even go so far as to say that this responsibility – the idea that I really do have a responsibility for other people – is part of what makes a group of people a society.
I am even one of those people who thinks that raising taxes on the wealthy in order to provide for the all of those kinds of people listed above would be a good idea. I think that doing that would be an act of charity, an act of love. Not the gooey sentimental love of romantic comedies – though that has its place, too – but a real, active and living love that demands action. Not mere inner feeling, but acting-in-the-world. A reflection, perhaps, of God’s love for the world: a love so great it compels one to the act of giving to others something they can never repay that we call grace.
I am even one of those people who thinks that we should raise the minimum wage. I think this because I believe that employers have a moral responsibility to their employees and that those who pay the current minimum wage are failing to meet that responsibility. It would certainly be one thing if everyone working a minimum wage job were a teenager with parents who could support them or college students with adequate support for their schooling. It is another thing when we know that a large portion of minimum wage workers are people who are trying to make a living.
I suspect that there are more than a few people in America who would say that my real problem – deep seated in my liberal psyche – is not a wish that we would love one another and take responsibility for one another, but envy. But that’s not right. Envy is the failure to rejoice in the good fortune of others because we feel that their own well-being somehow diminishes our own. But calls for greater charity or more justice are not envious; nor is noticing that someone’s good fortune is ill-gotten.1
But that isn’t what I want to talk about here. What I want to talk about here is the image above and the attitude that it expresses.
The Low Wage Workers’ Strike
On December 5, many minimum wage or near minimum wage workers across the United States went on strike demanding a significant increase in the minimum wage. And that makes sense. The value of not only the minimum wage but low wage earnings in general has been decreasing for years, and low-wage jobs tend to pay below the threshold of a living wage. In my own town of Davenport, Iowa, for example, a living wage for one adult would be about $8.40 an hour (more than a dollar above the minimum wage). Add a child to the mix and it jumps to almost $18.90 an hour. To pick another place at random, in Montgomery County, Alabama, a living wage for a single adult would be $7.50 per hour. Add a child and it jumps to about $16.30 per hour. All of this, of course, assumes that the workers in question work full-time jobs, have access to affordable housing, etc.2
The point, you see, isn’t just about the minimum wage, but about low wages in general. Increasing the minimum wage to the proposed $15 per hour isn’t just about more than doubling the wages of the teenager flipping burgers, but bringing the hourly wage of the typical healthcare support worker in Montgomery County (about $10 per hour) a little closer to what she needs in order to live. So the question isn’t just whether someone making your lunch at Wendy’s should make at least $15 per hour, but whether the home health aide bathing your dementia-stricken mother should.
And a strike seems like a reasonable way of doing things. After all, it’s how markets are supposed to work: if the employer isn’t paying enough, don’t work. A one-day strike offers that as an option for people who, if they simply quit, would risk losing their very ability to survive. It allows low-wage workers the chance to participate in the labor market as more than serfs tied to a cash register or checkout lane.
Military Pay and Low Wages
The image at the top of this post was created in response a primary demand of the strike: a $15 per hour minimum wage. For those who can’t view images, it shows two soldiers in combat with the caption: “We get paid less than minimum wage and you’re demanding $15 bucks an hour to slap a burger on a bun.”
First, as already pointed out, the low wage worker’s strike isn’t just about minimum wage workers. It would affect a lot of other workers, too.
Second, it isn’t exactly true that soldiers make less than minimum wage. It is true that the basic pay for a private (E1) is about $18,200 per year. That would be $8.75 per hour if that private worked a forty hour workweek. Of course, in a combat zone work is not 40 hours per week. In the 24 hour per day – between duty and effectively being constantly on call – world of the combat zone, $18,200 is indeed pathetic pay, especially considering the special challenges and threats faced by members of the armed forces.3
Fortunately, even E1′s don’t really make just $18,200 per year. They also receive benefits. These include healthcare, vacation time (30 days per year), sick days (as needed), life insurance, education benefits, retirement plans, child care, and free or subsidized food and housing. Almost 60% of military pay is in the form of non-cash benefits. The average total package for an active duty soldier is about $99,000!4 That means that our E1 example makes, in principle, closer to $45,500, including the value of those benefits. Again, this is pathetic in the 24 hour per day life of a soldier in a combat zone, but nearly as bad as that $18,200 per year.
But that’s an E1. What about a staff sergeant? An E6 with, say, 3 years’ experience makes about $33,800 in base pay or, in principle, about $84,500 with benefits. That would be about $40 per hour with a forty hour work week or about $9.70 for a 24 hour per day work week. Or we can take what the army says is average: $99,000. That would be about $47 per hour for a forty hour work week or about $11.30 per hour for a 24 hour per day work week. In fact, according to the Army’s own website, anyone above E4 (specialist or corporal) with one year’s experience or above E3 (private first class) makes more than minimum wage – even in the 24 hour per day work week – if you include benefits. And, of course, none of this counts combat pay or certain tax benefits enjoyed by the military.
Whether that’s adequate is a separate question. My point here is simply that making the comparison between someone who is in a combat zone and someone in civilian life makes no real sense. The pay situations, the benefit situations and the lifestyles are vastly different.
None For Me, So None For Thee
The real question, of course, is what is just. The image proposes what I like to think of as a ‘none for me, so none for thee’ perspective; really, in this case, a ‘not for them, so not for you‘ perspective: active duty soldiers in combat zones aren’t paid $15 per hour, so the single mom struggling to make ends meet working three different low wage jobs shouldn’t either. That seems extremely uncharitable, which is to say unloving.
But perhaps the problem is that it seems unfair. If the home health aide is guaranteed at least $15 per hour, shouldn’t the soldier be?
Well, yes… of course.
But this seems to be a difference between liberal and conservative political culture. When I see a group that is treated unjustly and am then presented with a second group that is being treated unjustly, I propose that we change things so that both groups are treated justly. When my conservative friend sees a group that claims to be treated unjustly – I don’t know that she thinks low wage workers are being treated unjustly – and then sees a second group that is being treated in a similar or worse fashion, her response seems to be that we should change nothing; both groups should continue to be treated unjustly. The reasoning almost appears to be that an injustice anywhere is a justification for injustice everywhere.
And that is the core of the ‘none for me, so none for thee’ attitude: I don’t get what you think would be fair, so neither should you; and that’s true even if you are also trying to improve my situation! It is almost as though I believe that your well-being might diminish my own.
It is, perhaps, envy, only worse: not only the inability to celebrate another’s good fortune, but an evil drive to prevent it.