Our current debate over whether or not to raise the minimum wage has focused on economic arguments more than biblical ones, and that’s fine. A good economy benefits everyone. So before we seek out biblical guidance on the issues, let me address a couple very simple realities about the nature of the minimum wage.
First, the U.S. has had 23 minimum wage increases since 1938. There is no pattern linking them to economic busts or booms. Yes, minimum wage opponents are correct in saying that some companies will be unable to afford the increase and some jobs will be lost as a result. In fact, some businesses will go under as well. However, the vast majority of minimum wage employees will keep their jobs and see a significant increase in their buying power, causing them to buy more goods and services within the economy. When businesses experience an increase in customers buying their products and services, they must hire more employees to service the additional customers, and that creates jobs. Remember, it’s customer demand that creates jobs, not the rich. The rich will not hire more people to make more products when the products already on the shelves aren’t selling. That would be throwing their money away.
Second, contrary to popular belief, minimum wage increases add very little to the prices of the products we purchase. Let’s use cashiers, many of whom are paid minimum wage, as an example. Imagine a grocery store cashier receiving a minimum wage increase of $2 per hour. Now let’s ask ourselves, “How many products does that cashier ring up in an hour?” Probably a few hundred. So if we low-ball it, and assume that the cashier rings up 200 items per hour and divide that into the additional $2 per hour the cashier receives, we find that $2 divided by 200 items equals one cent per item. In other words, a $4 gallon of milk would only go up to $4.01 to cover the cost of the $2 hourly increase in pay. The reality is that in most industries, the cost of labor makes up a relatively small percentage of business costs, so raising wages has little impact on prices. Plus, if consumers are unwilling to spend more money, then the business owners, many of whom are rich, will simply have to absorb the wage increase and make a little less profit. They cannot raise their prices to the point that fewer customers buy their products, or they will lose more money than they would by raising wages.
Those are the practical, economic realities of the minimum wage. So what does the Bible have to say about it?
Unfortunately, the Bible says little, because wages weren’t much of a factor in God’s nation of ancient Israel. Twelve of the 13 tribes of Israel had land to farm. Since they worked their own land, their wages were what they produced. They didn’t have to rely on anyone to pay them. In first century Rome, however, where the New Testament was written, the economy resembled our own in that the landowners had rights to the revenue that food from their land produced, and they hired workers to work that land. They often paid the workers meager wages, as little as necessary to recruit them.
What did the apostle Paul have to say about that?
2 Timothy 2:6 says, “The hard-working farmer ought to be the first to receive his share of the crops.” Paul makes the common sense point that workers, not land owners, have first rights to what their work produces. The pure capitalist belief is the opposite: the owner of the capital (land, equipment, etc. used to produce goods and services) has full rights to what the workers produce with the capital; owning capital is to be rewarded, while hard work is not. So the biblical model is that the laborers deserve a healthy share of what they produce. This is not communism; it doesn’t say that the property owner gets no share or that everyone gets the same, but neither does it align with modern day Republican ideology.
All people are created in the image of God and deserve a dignified quality of life. That’s why Malachi 3:5 says, “Then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan, and those who turn aside the alien, and do not fear Me, says the Lord of hosts.” When employers pay a wage so low that hard-working people suffer want despite their efforts, that’s oppression. God hates oppression. Today’s Republican Party loves it. We Christians should side with God, and not Republicans, and support a minimum wage increase.