The minimum wage ought to be a living wage

Why do we have such low expectations for what a minimum wage ought to accomplish for working people?
Peace & Justice

Minimum-wage laws are intended to put an absolute bottom on the depths to which wages might otherwise sink left to their own—that is, corporate—devices. But minimum wages typically don’t approach what the church has called a just wage. The church does not offer a figure for what a just wage should be, but it does provide a criterion for it: A just wage should be sufficient to enable a working person “comfortably to support himself, his wife, and his children,” Pope Leo XIII (who did not imagine a woman serving as a wage-earning head of household) wrote in his encyclical on labor, Rerum Novarum, in 1891.

That working person should also earn enough for modest savings to build a better future and enough disposable income for leisure and recreation. The church teaches that life must be more than the drudgery of work and sleep to which low-wage workers are often consigned.

In post-industrial America, it is no longer clear what a minimum wage is intended to achieve, but it surely does not aspire to the just-wage standards set by Catholic social teaching. The federal minimum wage, at $7.25—a rate that has not increased since 2009—would reduce any working person to absolute poverty. That’s why many states set local minimums that are twice the federal rate or even higher. But even at its most generous level, no one expects a minimum wage to be enough to allow a family to get by on a single working adult’s wages. The prevailing minimum wage is not sufficient to afford even a modest two-bedroom apartment in any community in the United States.

Why have we come to have such low expectations for what a minimum wage ought to accomplish for working people?


In April, the Michelin corporation set a surprising standard that we can only hope may shame other corporate giants into action. The New York Times reports that the French tire maker set out to understand how its global workforce was faring in the aftermath of COVID-19 lockdowns. Chief executive Florent Menegaux discovered that thousands of Michelin workers at the bottom of the company’s pay scale could barely get by, so thin was their buffer against unexpected work stoppages. Menegaux decided that this status quo would not stand.

“If workers are just in survival mode, it’s a big problem,” he said. “When the wealth distribution in a company is too unequal, that’s a problem, too.” The Times reports that as part of a broad corporate-sponsored social welfare package, the company guaranteed a “decent wage” to all its employees wherever they lived in the world. This is no small commitment: Michelin has 132,000 workers at 131 factories in 26 countries.

Michelin plans to bind itself to model standards set by the United Nations Global Compact, agreeing to wages that enable a family of four to live “decently” in the city where they work with enough wage income left over to “save and spend modestly on goods or leisure activities.” Now what does that sound like?

Michelin joins a handful of large corporations that have made this commitment of decency to their employees. It’s surely a refreshing change, but let’s recall that this newfound generosity accompanies a period when top managers’ salaries have grown to scandalous proportions. This comes after decades when the new wealth generated by vast increases in productivity has barely shared any crumbs with the people working to make that productivity possible.


Just as the era of rapid economic and political integration known as globalization ushered in a time when corporations chased low wages around the world, perhaps the Michelin standard can set in motion a new race—this time toward worker equity. This approach may produce fewer billionaires, but it could mean the fruits of economic growth and productivity are more fairly distributed—and it would bring us closer to the church’s just wage.­ 

This article also appears in the July 2024 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 89, No. 7, page 42). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: Unsplash/Sam Moghadam Khamseh


About the author

Kevin Clarke

Kevin Clarke is the chief correspondent for America magazine and author of Oscar Romero: Love Must Win Out (Liturgical Press).

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