by Carol Stirling, Boise First Congregational UCC
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself” — Matthew 22:39b
Jobs should lift all people out of poverty, not keep them in it. But in the U.S. and in Idaho, fully one-quarter of all jobs pay poverty-level wages. The federal poverty level is $22,050 for a family of four. However, research suggests the average family needs an income of about twice the federal poverty level, or about $45,000, to meet basic needs. By that standard, 54% of people in Idaho are unable to live life with basic needs met.
Who are the low-wage workers — Most minimum-wage workers are young: 51% ages 16-24 and 21% ages 25-34. Most minimum-wage workers (59%) have no advanced education beyond high school. Nearly two-thirds of minimum-wage earners are food service workers. Part-time workers are paid less than full-time workers. There is far less upward mobility from low income to middle income, which manifests in negative consequences to the individual, family and community.
Where are the low-wage jobs — Low-wage jobs can be found in cleaning, caring for children and elders, selling items to customers. These jobs need to be done in our local communities and cannot be outsourced. They are less likely to provide benefits such as health insurance or sick leave.
Too many low-wage jobs — Over one-quarter of all jobs in the U.S. (26%) pay poverty-level wages, so low that a full-time worker cannot keep a family of four out of poverty. These jobs are more likely to be held by people of color.
Raise the minimum wage – The minimum wage for Idaho is $7.25/hour, the same as the federal wage, creating gross annual earnings of $15,000. All western states except Wyoming, Utah and Idaho have higher minimum wages than the federal wage. Wage increases are needed across the nation. UCC, National Council of Churches and Center for Community Change are conducting a campaign: “Let Justice Living Wage Roll” campaign. By supporting a living-wage campaign, we are supporting our neighbor and possibly ourselves as God has asked us to do.
Strengthen workers’ right to organize or form a union – Idaho is 1 of 22 states that has the right-to-work law. The law prohibits agreements between labor unions and employers that make membership or payment of union dues a condition of employment, either before or after hiring. Union membership has declined since this became law in 1986. Union workers in Idaho comprise about 5% of the workers, well below the national average of 12.5%. With almost 12,000 members, the Idaho Education Association is the state’s largest union. Across the nation and in Idaho, public service unions have come under attack, taking away or seeking to take away the right to collective bargaining. We need to strengthen the right of all workers to form and join unions. Unions are one of the best ways for workers to improve their wages and working conditions. Unions brought us the weekend, the 8-hour day, paid vacations and holidays, health insurance, and pensions.
Low-wage workers are high-value people of God. All jobs must provide fair and adequate wages, benefits, and working conditions. Workers must be able to support themselves and their families and live with the dignity God intends for all.