The Biblical verse sometimes referenced when questioning how much is spent on social programs is 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “For even when we were with you, we commanded you that if any would not work, neither should he eat.” Leaving aside the context, and a fuller understanding of these red letters, the message is stark.
But what if you do work and still don’t have enough to eat? In an attempt to help relieve this sad condition the Democratic majority in the Virginia General Assembly voted to increase the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.50, which took effect earlier this week.
All our local state representatives voted against it. Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon, and Dels. John Avoli, R-Staunton, Chris Runion, R-Rockingham, and Ronnie Campbell, R-Rockbridge, all saw fit to hold to the Republican Party line of opposition. I think they were wrong to do so.
Those working for minimum wage are a varied group. It includes those who have additional life supports. Teenagers have parents. Seniors have social security. But many are the working poor who often have others dependent on them. For these folks, life is tough and often unfair.
Some are homeless sleeping in cars, some in expensive, for them, motel rooms, some staying at missions.
The causes may be self-inflicted. School drop-outs, drug users, and law-breakers are part of this population. Others may have been born into the hard to break cycle of poverty or born physically or mentally challenged.
But is it to anyone’s advantage to make it harder, impossible, for these folks to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps? The Bible tells us a minimum wage was useful even in the time of Jesus; as well as giving voice to a reasonable hope for laborers.
The denarius, in both Matthew and John, was cited as a laborer’s daily wage. But more relevant, for this discussion, is 1 Corinthians 9:10: “…Yes, this was written for us, because whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in hope of sharing in the harvest.”
Work is best when it has an aspirational element rather than just being an act of desperation. Few living on their own, or responsible for themselves and a child, would take a $7.25 an hour job unless left with no other choice. This wage was exploitive taking advantage of the least among us.
In 2019 the Economic Policy Institute calculated it would take a wage of $10.54 to equal 1968’s minimum pay of $1.60. It had been 12 years between enacting the $7.25 minimum and this week’s increase. A long time for some workers to go between raises.
The economic engine for the entire world is fueled by the American consumer. It is not driven by billionaire wealth but by “thousandaires” needing a couch, a bigger TV. If all willing and able workers were enjoying a “livable wage,” however best defined, our economy would benefit, poverty would be reduced.
The offered opposition said increasing the minimum wage is harmful to businesses. This can happen, but not necessarily. Studies show improved productivity, less employee turnover and improved morale when the workforce is better paid. These improvement can offset many of the costs of better wages.
This should have been an easy affirmative vote for our state representatives. Instead of trying to take into account the likely improved business revenue accruing over 12 years and the diminished buying power of $7.25 from 2009 until now, our elected simply chose to ignore the disadvantaged in favor of those with plenty.
What kind of person cannot relate to the notion that workers deserve a share, a fair share, of the harvest?
Tracy Pyles, a former chairman and member of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors who lives in Augusta County, is a columnist for The News Virginian. His column is published Saturdays.