On January 5, 1914, Henry Ford made the dramatic move of doubling the wages of his automobile factory workers to $5 per day. At that time in the US, there was not a federally mandated minimum wage for employees and Ford was experiencing big problems with absenteeism and turnover. In addition, his company was making huge profits and he could afford the pay increases. A natural outcome of his largess was that he created a new pool of buyers for his automobiles.
Did this move make Henry Ford an enlightened employer or a shrewd businessman? Can a business leader or an organization be both?
In their book, Conscious Capitalism, Inc. Whole Foods Market cofounder John Mackey and professor Raj Sisodia offer examples of companies where these seemingly opposite viewpoints are found to be mutually compatible. An organization can be profitable and a benevolent employer. Companies such as Whole Foods Market, Southwest Airlines, Costco, Google, Patagonia, The Container Store, UPS, and dozens of others, according to the authors, are examples of companies that benefit customers, employees, suppliers, investors, and society.
Catholic teaching, from early writings of Frederick Ozanam, to modern encyclicals, has supported the view of these authors, particularly in light of the spiritual value that work brings to the worker.
"Work is fundamental to the dignity of a person. Work, to use an image, 'anoints' us with dignity, fills us with dignity, makes us similar to God, who has worked and still works, who always acts..."
- Pope Francis, Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, 5/1/13
There are two national position papers on the Voice of the Poor web site dealing with wages (http://www.svdpusa.org/Resources/VoiceofthePoor.aspx).
One of those papers deals with society in general. When you read the paper, it is clear that SVdP supports a wage that recognizes the dignity of the individual. The national Voice of the Poor committee is studying various proposals to increase the minimum wage and will likely take the issue to our national Board later this year.
However, discussions about minimum wage, the least amount of money that an employer can pay to comply with the law, seem to miss an important point in Catholic teaching -- does it bring dignity to the worker and those that he or she supports?
And, when the dust settles after the debate, none of the proposals being discussed will truly lift someone out of need and dependency.
The chart below shows that, even if there are two wage earners employed in minimum wage jobs in Georgia, their annual income, before taxes, barely puts the family above the poverty level.
This family would still qualify for several public assistance programs in Georgia. Keep in mind that we are talking about gross income. The family still needs to find affordable housing, pay for transportation, medical expenses, childcare, clothing and other normal living expenses. Georgia Budget and Policy Institute just released a study on poverty in our state. They estimate that it takes more than $50,000 in annual salary for a family of three to live without public assistance.
Obviously, simply earning $7.25 an hour, or even $10 or $11, will not get a family on the path to self-sufficiency. We certainly need to study and increase wages for the lowest paid individuals in the US. However, we must do that in the short term, by finding a fair wage for wage, and in the longer term by finding more enlightened employers who understand that the “The economy should serve people, not the other way around.” Economic Justice for All, Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy, USCCB 1986)
That is why the national Voice of the Poor Committee has updated its very first position paper, which deals with just wages for Society employees, using the term self-sufficient wage.
As noted on the Washington University web site, “The Self-Sufficiency Standard defines the amount of income necessary to meet basic needs (including taxes) without public subsidies (e.g., public housing, food stamps, Medicaid or child care) and without private/informal assistance (e.g., free babysitting by a relative or friend, food provided by churches or local food banks, or shared housing).”
Our goal, once the position paper is approved by our leadership, is to make sure that The Society is one of those enlightened, conscious employers. We certainly must put our house in order before we go pointing too many fingers at other employer’s wage scales.
Everything we do as a faith-based organization should be developing our personal spirituality. Whether it is home visits, volunteering to sort clothes or cans of food, or driving a fork lift—we should conduct our business in a way that reflects our values. The same should be true about the way we employ people.