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NCC's Edgar sees more work for a living wage in America
New York City, June 1, 2007 – Last month's passage of a raise in the federal minimum wage – the first in ten years – was praised by community and faith leaders across the country. Some see it only as a first step.
A national coalition started by the National Council of Churches USA (NCC), "Let Justice Roll," continues its efforts in states, counties and cities to make the minimum wage one that workers can live on and support their families.
"Even with the passage of a higher federal minimum wage, Let Justice Roll will continue to work for living wages for all of America's poorest workers," wrote the Rev. Bob Edgar, NCC general secretary. "You may hear about them in your state or city. They may be people of faith or no faith. But they have come together to help those who have no voice and little influence in the political process," he wrote in a regular column [complete text below] on the "Talking Justice" blog of the NPR program, "Justice Talking."
"'You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers,'" wrote Edgar, quoting the Bible (Deuteronomy 24:14). And he reminded readers of the "examples of thousands of Biblical passages described by the late Pope Paul VI as God's 'preferential option for the poor.'"
"For those who hear God's voice in the Bible or for those who believe Jesus to be the embodiment of the Word of God," wrote Edgar, "working for the poor becomes an important divine mandate."
The text of Edgar's column follows.
Justice for workers is a matter of faith
By Bob Edgar
It was a bittersweet victory. In May, Congress finally passed a raise in the federal minimum wage. It took them ten years. And it was tacked on to the Iraq war funding bill that finally got through both houses.
For many people of faith it was a real dilemma. There is ample evidence in the Bible that supports fair wages for workers. There is ample evidence in the Bible that speaks against war. Tying the two together was tough for those who did not want to ride the victory train on the rails of a war bill. They wanted a clean bill because the American worker deserved to be treated with respect and dignity.
The minimum wage raise also came with tax breaks for many who hire minimum wage workers. This welfare for businesses has been a tactic used by Congress and state legislatures for years. It seems there is nothing wrong with tax breaks for businesses and for wealthy Americans but when it comes to justice for the poorest of American workers there is always resistance from lawmakers. Thankfully, 34 states had raised their minimum wages while Congress kept the minimum wage a poverty wage. There are seven states where the minimum wage will still be higher than the federal wage even after it reaches its new level of $7.25 an hour in two years.
For many years across the nation there had been a lot of people from faith communities working to raise the federal minimum wage. The National Council of Churches USA started an anti-poverty initiative called Let Justice Roll. It has worked tirelessly for a living wage for American workers. Its most recent victory was in Tennessee.
Shelby County, which comprises Memphis and its environs, just last month passed a living wage ordinance. Matching an earlier Memphis City Council action, public employees and those of government contractors will receive a minimum of $10 an hour with benefits or $12 without. The effort was championed by a coalition led by people of faith. Why? Because the Bible says so.
"You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt," says the author of Deuteronomy (24:14-15) in the Hebrew Scriptures. That's part of the Torah, or the Law of Moses.
In the New Testament Jesus constantly talks about the poor and the responsibility of those who are not poor for their brothers and sisters who have less. In parables and in conversations with those in power, Jesus always is found standing up for those with less. "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me," (NRSV Matthew 25:40) says Matthew's gospel. These are just examples of thousands of Biblical passages described by the late Pope Paul VI as God's "preferential option for the poor."
Even with the passage of a higher federal minimum wage, Let Justice Roll will continue to work for living wages for all of America's poorest workers. You may hear about them in your state or city. They may be people of faith or no faith. But they have come together to help those who have no voice and little influence in the political process.
For those who hear God's voice in the Bible or for those who believe Jesus to be the embodiment of the Word of God, working for the poor becomes an important divine mandate.
NCC News contact: Dan Webster, 212.870.2252, NCCnews@ncccusa.org
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