The Bible doesn’t directly say anything about the minimum wage. It is a modern political issue.
But the Bible does teach us to be fair to those who work for us. For example, Deuteronomy 23:4 says, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” The teaching is clear. And if there were any doubt, the New Testament interpretation of the verse makes it obvious—a worker is worthy of his hire and should be paid fairly. There are many other verses calling on employers (bosses, masters, etc.) to pay fair wages. (See Malachi 3:5 and Luke 10:7, among many others.)
Any Biblical scholar (or even a casual reader) would agree that we are called by God to be fair to those who work for us. But the challenge is in defining “fair” in terms of dollars and cents. And once you decide what “fair” is, you still must decide who defines “fair” and how it should be enforced.
Any attempt—including mine—is likely to be controversial. But I’ll do my best to be both logical and Biblical. And I’ll start by comparing today’s minimum wage to when I started working.
In 1972, at the age of 14, I worked at my first job earning the federal minimum wage of $1.60 per hour. (I know. You don’t have to tell me. I’m old.) I unloaded trucks, swept floors, stocked shelves, loaded bags of concrete and did whatever else was necessary at my dad’s hardware store. (When my father hired me, he made sure I understood that I was expected to work twice as hard as everyone else so no one would complain that he “gave” me the job.) I worked hard for that $1.60 per hour.
Today, the Arizona minimum wage is $12.15 per hour, and I hear grumblings from people my age about how “overpaid” today’s minimum wage earners are. And they really scream when they talk about the proposed $15 per hour minimum wage.
Are today’s workers overpaid at $12.15? How about at $15.00? Let’s do some comparisons between 1972 and 2020. Here’s the math:
- In 1972, I only had to work 200 hours of minimum wage work to set aside enough money for a full year’s tuition at a state school like ASU. In 2020, I would need to work 880 hours at minimum wage to pay for that same year of tuition.
- In 1972, I had to work a total of 16,750 hours to buy a median priced home. Today, I would need to work 28,800 hours to buy a median priced home.
- Rents have also risen astronomically. In 1972, a minimum wage worker had to work 68 hours per month to rent a median priced one-bedroom apartment. Today, it takes about 95 hours of minimum wage work to rent the same median-priced apartment.
- In 1972, young workers didn’t need to pay for (obviously) computers, cell phones, or the internet. In today’s world, it’s hard to get a job, keep a job, or get an education without them.
Clearly, education, housing, and basic needs are important for minimum wage earners, especially if they want to improve their income, learn a skill, and get a career. Today’s minimum wage (even in Arizona which is higher than many states) isn’t keeping up with life in 1972 in these areas.
But, to be honest, some things haven’t changed as much as we think.
- In 1972, I would have had to work 1350 hours to buy an inexpensive new (Ford Pinto) car. Today, I would have to work about the same to buy an inexpensive new Chevrolet Spark.
- In 1972, one hour’s work would buy 4.5 gallons of gas. Today, an hour of work will buy 4 gallons of gas.
- Fast food hasn’t changed much. In 1972, working an hour would buy 2 big macs ($.65 each) and one order of French fries. In 2021, working an hour will buy two Big Macs ($3.99 each) and two orders of French Fries. (A Big Mac isn’t my favorite, but it makes for a good comparison since it hasn’t changed much in 50 years!)
For transportation and food, today’s minimum wage hasn’t changed much in 50 years. But for housing and education, the minimum wage has lost incredible ground.
Many businesses have recognized that wages aren’t high enough for entry level employees. Aetna, Amazon, Bank of America, Best Buy, Costco, Facebook, Target, and Walt Disney all have a minimum wage of at least $15 per hour. I applaud these companies, for they raised their wages without the need for federal regulation. It would help if other well-known companies (are you listening WalMart and McDonalds?) would follow suit.
But even at $15 per hour, it’s hard for a young person to make it. The costs of housing and education have escalated so rapidly that it’s nearly impossible to earn minimum wage, live in an apartment, and get an education.
There are other factors that need to be addressed beyond the minimum wage if we want to be fair to workers in America:
- The rising price of college and technical schools (and the easy availability of federal money in the forms of tough-to-repay loans) has led to a rapid rise in the cost of getting an education or learning a trade. Governments would be wiser to invest in low-cost education solutions that don’t put people in deep debt if they truly want to help citizens. And more businesses must be willing to do in-house skill and trade training without demanding degrees and certifications.
- The rapid rise in medical costs put many low-income workers and families into a constant high-risk category of financial trouble. In most cases, a young worker (even with insurance) can lose everything they have worked for if they end up even briefly in the hospital. Companies must find a way to help their low-income employees with medical costs.
- Some of the factors that lead to financial trouble, of course, are self-induced. We need to do better in schools and churches to teach basic financial literacy like living on a budget and saving for emergencies and big-ticket items. As a pastor who frequently helps people in financial trouble, I am deeply aware that people don’t have the basic skills to budget, pay taxes (without expensive help), or even cook their own inexpensive meals.
- And, of course, many people who should be making far more than minimum wage have kept themselves in that category with a poor work ethic, a bad attitude toward the value of work, or a lack of motivation to work harder, learn a skill, and get ahead. It’s hard for an employer to justify increased wages for workers who don’t show basic job skills such as showing up on time, working hard with a good attitude, and treating other employees and customers with respect.
So what is the answer to a fair minimum wage? I don’t believe that I can—from a Biblical perspective—answer that question into specific dollars and cents. But I will say that I do not believe that we are treating our young and low-income workers fairly. And we need to do better.
We could start with these things:
- Those who hire (or have an influence on wages) should do the math to make sure that an entry-level employee can live decently in their community on the wage they are paid. It is unfair—and therefore unbiblical—to pay a wage that isn’t enough to make it in today’s world.
- Hard-working employees with initiative should be moved out of minimum wage levels quickly.
- Those in management should find ways to train and develop employees without relying on expensive government schooling and certifications.
- Those in management should work hard to make sure that they are fair in employment practices beyond the hourly pay. Attention should be given to fair expectations, time-off, insurance and retirement benefits, working conditions, safety, and more.
- Christian consumers should be willing to make their purchases at companies who pay a decent living wage. Yes, it will cost us a bit more, but it makes a difference. I don’t want to personally profit on the backs of underpaid workers.
Anytime I write on a somewhat controversial topic, I get some complaints. (Sometimes, to be honest, they are deserved.) But let me answer a few potential complaints before you quit reading:
- Am I a progressive? No. I am sometimes called a liberal by conservatives and I am sometimes called a conservative by liberals. The truth is that I work hard to be neither progressive nor conservative. I want to be Biblical, and a fair wage is Biblical.
- Do I believe in social justice? It depends on how you want to define “social justice.” Justice itself is Biblical, so I believe in justice.
- Am I writing to seek an increase in my own wage? No. My church has been more than fair in paying me and giving me reasonable expectations and a good working environment. I have no complaints.
- Am I being overtly political? No. Paying a fair wage is a Biblical topic, and every Christian wants to (or at least should want to) live in accord with Biblical teaching. It’s a fair topic for Christian discussion—without all the rancor that comes with politics. I do not—and will not—publicly support a party or a candidate.
It’s both a financial and Biblical issue, so it’s fair to ask, “What’s the bottom line?” The bottom line is simple. As Christians we have an obligation to treat employees and workers with fairness. Jesus’ golden rule, “Treat others the way you want to be treated” doesn’t just apply to personal, family, and church relationships. It applies to the way we do business. And it applies to the way and the dollar amount we pay our workers.
A worker should be paid fairly.
That’s a Biblical truth.