Catholic Social Thought has long recognized the right to a “just wage” (sometimes called a “living wage”), which is defined as a wage “sufficient to enable [a man] to support himself, his wife and his children.” CA 8. One common objection to the idea of the just wage is what might be called the calculation problem. Sure, the criticism goes, everyone would agree in the abstract that wages should be sufficient to support oneself and one’s family, but how are we to decide what is sufficient? What, specifically, is the minimum wage that a man may be paid without violating his right to a just wage?
For answers, I went to Father John Ryan’s A Living Wage, which is the classic American text in defense of the right to a just wage. Chapter five of the book, A Concrete Estimate of A Living Wage, tackles the calculation problem head on, and Father Ryan offers a specific estimate of the amount of wages a man must be paid as his due in justice (in what follows all figures appear to assume a five person family of husband, wife, and three children).
In the first edition of A Living Wage (published in 1906), Father Ryan gave $600 a year (or $14,143.39 in 2009 dollars*) as the minimum wage necessary to qualify as a just wage in the United States. Father Ryan opined that this wage was “probably” sufficient in certain parts of the country (such as the South) where the cost of living was lower, and was possibly sufficient elsewhere, though he noted that there were “certainly” parts of the country where it was insufficient.
In book’s the second edition (published in 1919), Father Ryan supplemented his discussion with figures from a number of independent calculations, which in 2009 dollars ranged from $14,148.09 (United States Bureau of Labor), to $19,579.07 (Professor William F. Ogburn, National War Labor Board). Based on these assessments as well as his own calculations, Father Ryan concluded that:
[T]he minimum cost of living for a man and wife and three children in the United States to-day (October 1919) varies from $1,400 to $1,500 [or $17,212.22 to $18,441.66 in 2009 dollars]. In light of the fact that the cost of living has more than doubled since 1905, it is interesting to note the close conformity of the estimates given in the first edition of the book with those we have just considered.
Based on these estimates, Father Ryan then proceeded to calculate the hourly wage necessary for a wage to be just, and examined the percentage of workers in 1919 who failed to be paid that wage:
[According to a survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics] [o]f the males 48 percent received less than 50 cents per hour [$6.15 in 2009 dollars] and 23 percent less than 40 cents [$4.92]. At the former rate, a man working ten hours a day and 300 days a year [that is, six days a week] would earn $1,500 [$18,441.66]; at the latter rate and in the same time, he would earn only $1,200 [$14,753.33]. Inasmuch as the the great majority of wage earners are not employed so many hours per year as 3,000, a Living Wage would mean an hourly rate of about 50 cents [i.e. $6.15 an hour].
As regards females represented in the survey, 56 percent received less than 30 cents per hour [$3.69], and 36 percent less than 20 cents [$2.46]. On the basis of a forty-eight hour week, which is fully equal to the average working time of the great majority throughout the year, anything less than 30 cents [$3.69] is scarcely a Living Wage in any of the large cities.
It should be noted that, in 2009, the threshold for poverty for a family of five in the continental United States was $25,790, considerably above the highest of Father Ryan’s estimates. Somewhere around 14% of the population is below the poverty line, and in 2008 only around 3% of workers made at or below the minimum wage, as compared with roughly half of workers ninety years ago.
*All adjustments made by The Inflation Calculator.