July 21, 2008

Minimum Wage Workers
by Pastor George Van Alstine

I stumbled on this story on AOL this morning:

(July 20) – With commodity, fuel and insurance costs hitting record highs, small business owners are anxious about this week’s federal wage hike, which will require employers in 26 states and the District of Columbia to raise their base to at least $6.55.

The way this paragraph was worded slapped me in the face. Poor people struggling to feed their kids are finally going to get a “raiseâ€? from $5.75 to $6.55 per hour, and I’m supposed to feel sorry for the small business owner!

To help me empathize with this entrepreneur, the author of the article interviewed a “typicalâ€? impacted business owner:

As this week’s wage hike approaches, small business owners such as Joy Kealey view the mandatory increase as another frustrating pinch on profits.Kealey owns a Boise pizza chain called Chicago Connection in Idaho, one of nine states with a minimum wage set at the federal level …. Of the 260 workers Kealey employs in her 11 restaurants, she estimates that 5 to 10 percent are paid minimum wage and will receive a raise this week. The increase may also force increases in other staffers’ salaries….

[Kealey] recognizes that her business, which made more than $5 million last year, may end 2008 a bit weaker.

Jen Kern, an advocate for the poor, understands Kealey’s concern:

I don’t fault the anger or frustrations of a small business employer dealing with all the rising costs. I just don’t think the answer is keeping the minimum wage at a level that, in terms of real dollars, is below where it was 40 years ago. Yes, there are a lot of prices increasing, but these workers have to buy gas, too.

Economics are not easy for anybody, not for the struggling small business owner, not for the entry level worker. I watched both my parents experience ulcers as they struggled to open a hardware business in the late 1950s. As a teenager, I was a truly minimum wage employee—room and board. When the store developed to the point where, on a busy Saturday, it was too much for a mom-and-pop (plus kids) work force, I listened to the debates about how much expense would be added by hiring “extra help.â€? We never did.

But small business owners and marginal employees have to work together and stop seeing each other as the enemy. The true economic enemies are the super-rich who use all the legal tricks in the book, and their control of so much of the Nation’s capital, to keep widening the gap between themselves and the American underclass, which includes both small entrepreneurs and their employees. We need to face the fact that, the way our economy is working right now, the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer.

This is an issue we Christians should speak up about. Jesus loved the poor and did his best to meet their needs. He spoke out against those whose own greed kept the poor down. In this, he was echoing the consistent teaching of the Old Testament, that injustice against the poor is hated by God and that he will hold the economic oppressors accountable for their self-indulgence and insensitivity.

In the economic hard times we are experiencing, we who bear the name of Christ will have to do a lot of thinking about this. How can we make sure we are always on the same side as Jesus? By being on the side of the poor.