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Would Jesus want Congress to raise the minimum wage? One group of religious leaders seem to think so.

Last week, two public policy groups, Interfaith Worker Justice and Faith in Public Life, wrote a letter to Congress stressing the moral obligation to raise the federal hourly minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10.

According to Catholic News Service, it was “signed by about 5,000 people, including more than 30 prominent religious leaders known for their work on social issues.”

The letter described increasing wages as “indispensable to ensuring that no worker will suffer the indignity of poverty.”

But the question shouldn’t be whether or not fighting poverty is a moral obligation—our call as Christians to help the least of these is clear. Rather, the question should be whether or not raising the minimum wage will actually help the poor.

Dr. Anne Bradley is not convinced it will:

Without looking at the long-term, often unintended consequences, we won’t see the full picture.

In fact, she says in this post that it will hurt them in two different ways:

  • A higher minimum wage raises the cost of employment for businesses, resulting in job losses. It becomes riskier to hire lower-skilled laborers, and studies have shown that lower-skilled laborers are actually becoming unemployed.
  • Raising the costs of employing workers means that firms often have to raise their prices to cover the difference. The increased price of goods and services disproportionately harms the poor because they don’t have the excess disposable income to absorb the rising costs of buying things they need.

So the very good intentions behind minimum wage policies often harm the very people we are trying to help. Instead of closing the opportunity gap, we widen it by cutting off opportunities for the poorest among us.

Public policy definitely affects the poorest and least powerful among us. It’s just not always apparent how. In this case, it’s easy to miss the harmful unintended consequences of raising the minimum wage.

What then should we do to help the poor?

Dr. Bradley proposes a solution: empower businesses owners.

If we want to care for the poor, and enable them to use their gifts to serve others, we must empower the people who stand ready and willing to employ them and not hamper those efforts. Only then are the poor able to get on that ladder of economic progress and escape the trappings of poverty.

One way to empower business owners is to support public policy that increases their economic opportunities instead of shrinking them.

But even if the religious leaders who banded together to write this letter failed to see the unintended consequences of raising the minimum wage, their involvement in the public square is an example for all people of faith to follow. According to the article,

Faith leaders and advocates for working people are writing letters, taking part in prayer vigils at state capitols, meeting with government leaders, and writing bulletin inserts on this issue.

If we really want to help the most vulnerable, other faith leaders and advocates should follow their example, but in support of free enterprise that creates more opportunities for the poor, not less.

Leave your comments here.

Elise Amyx

About Elise Amyx

Elise Amyx is a communications associate at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics. She has previously worked with the Values & Capitalism project at A.E.I. and the Acton Institute. Her articles have been published in Real Clear Religion, The Detroit News, and AFF Doublethink. She has a BBA in Economics from James Madison University. Read More...

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  • http://thehighcalling.org/ Marcus Goodyear

    While I certainly agree that raising the minimum wage isn’t going to end poverty, most economic surveys I’ve read say that it likely won’t hurt large companies that employ the vast majority of low wage workers. A recent study even seems to argue persuasively that increasing the minimum wage will have a real impact on the quality of life for the poorest workers in our country.
    (https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/15038936/Dube_MinimumWagesFamilyIncomes.pdf)

    I’m not an economist, so I can only rely on the interpretations of these resources that I read from other sources. How do you interpret these recent studies differently? Or what studies are you using to draw your conclusions?

    • Elise Amyx

      Marcus,

      Thanks for your comment. The link to the study didn’t work for me, can you post it again? I’d like to take a look at it.

      The studies are all over the place and agree they can be confusing. Sometimes they don’t take the long-term unintended consequences into account.

      Here is one of the best empirical studies on the minimum wage that I am familiar with: http://object.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/pubs/pdf/PA701.pdf

      “It describes why most of the academic evidence points to negative effects from minimum wages, and discusses why some studies may produce seemingly positive results.”

      Elise

  • ezra

    I think the biggest point people (especially christians…me included) miss is that is the Church is supposed to take care of the poor, not the government. The bible tells us, not the government to do it.

    Imagine if we didn’t need food stamps/snap because the church was giving away enough food. Imagine the church running low income housing and driving the government out of the welfare business simply because they are not needed…imagine the impact the church could have….surely we could manage taking care of the poor better then the government has…which isn’t really their responsibility anyway.
    we are trying to pass the buck that Jesus has given to us to do.
    -ezra

  • lklaj

    I TOTALLY agree with Marcus and Ezra. That being said, we did this in San Jose last year, VOTER-approved, over the objections of our mayor. Despite his dire warnings of increased unemployment, it never happened. There is no evidence of job loss. Most of the employers were ALREADY paying a higher wage, due to the fact that they couldn’t even attract the most low wage workers because of our crazy living costs here. End of story. I would like to see evidence to the contrary.
    Since we voted it in, we expected to have our costs raised. Also, generally agreed upon. There is a moral imperative that trumped our corporate interests in this case, and I am proud of our city.
    That being said, rents in the area have risen 40% in 2 years. We are one of the few housing markets that didn’t seem really affected by the recession – it has priced out most natives and we have many people coming from overseas to work here on visas. They often pay cash for our housing. Its stunning. This in turn leads our middleclass to scoop up whatever is lower priced, driving those prices up. Absolutely crazy. San Jose has one of the highest homeless populations in the nation, per capita. No easy answer here, but I would vote for it again.

  • FA Miniter

    Being paid the minimum wage does not give a person sufficient income so as not to need state aid of some kind, whether it be food stamps, subsidized health insurance or subsidized housing. The minimum wage ought to be high enough that a full time employee need not receive any state aid.

    I would further propose that no corporation be allowed to (a) pay its top managers more than ten times the lowest paid full time employee is paid, (b) pay bonuses to top managers, or (c) pay dividends to shareholders, if any of its employees are so poorly paid as to be eligible to receive these state benefits.

  • S. Keegan

    Our Lord had many exhortations to help the poor. He never once advocated governments stepping in to force those who had wealth to give it to the poor. There might be a basis for arguing for a company voluntarily raising their internal starting wage; there is no support for claiming a Christian moral duty to raise the legal minimum wage.