But while that concept has been a bedrock of papal encyclicals for more than a century, its pronouncement remains highly controversial in "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" America. That lesson was driven home forcefully to Dr. Gerald Miller, professor of economics at Jesuit-run Rockhurst University.
Miller told a workshop at the annual Missouri Catholic Conference assembly Oct. 5 that he recently wrote an opinion piece for The Kansas City Star calling for a living wage for all full-time, long-term workers.
For weeks afterwards, the Star's letters-to-the-editor section and talk radio shows in Kansas City were filled with people calling him everything but a capitalist.
"This is tough stuff," he admitted. "If you start telling owners, managers and corporate executives what they should pay employees and that there are moral overtones to it, there will be a reaction."
Rooted in the "inviolable, inalienable" dignity of all human beings, Catholic social teaching has made it clear that workers have a right to a decent living, Miller said. In "Laborem Exercens" ("On Human Work"), 1981, Pope John Paul II introduced the term "family wage": "Just remuneration for the work of an adult who is responsible for a family ... what is called a family wage - that is, a single salary given to the head of a family for his work, sufficient for the needs of the family without the spouse having to take up gainful employment outside the home."
Putting a dollar figure on the concept of a living wage is where the controversy is centered, Miller said.
"It's easy for us to talk about it and write about it," he said. "Then we get down to numbers."
Miller defined "living wage" as the average between the U.S. median household income - $42,228 - and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2001 estimate for the annual expenditures on children by a family of four - $37,880. That puts his estimate at $40,054, or $19.25 a hour, for an American family of two parents and two children.
But obviously, he stressed, not all jobs are going to pay that much, nor can all employers afford to pay that much.
"Nobody is going to jump from $5.15 (the current U.S. minimum wage) to $19.25 an hour," he said.
Miller also noted that youths working part-time jobs and other workers not supporting families would not fall under that "living wage" guideline.
But, he said, that figure should be a target for all employers, especially Catholic employers, for working heads of households who devote a significant portion of their working lives to the employer. And, he said, the living wage does not only include wages, but the value of benefits including health insurance and retirement plans.
Sadly, he said, even Catholic institutions do not always follow what the Catholic church preaches.
"We profess solidarity with workers," Miller noted. "Yet when it comes to our own hospitals, our own institutions, we fight unionism."
Miller said there is no greater "pro-family" platform than a living wage.
He noted that a worker employed full-time at a minimum wage job would make $10,712 a year, or about 70 percent less that the government's 2001-02 poverty threshold of $18,100 a year for a family of four.
Miller asserted that it would be impossible for a family of four to live decently at $18,000 a year, let alone the $10,712 provided by a minimum-wage job.
"I could not raise a family on $18,100 a year," Miller said. "Yet if a family of four has $19,000 in income, they are not in poverty according to these guidelines."
Miller also emphasized that he is not talking about forcing employers by law to pay a living wage.
"I'm not talking about legislation," he said, adding that a living wage for workers should be a "target" with "several gradations within that" depending on a variety of circumstances.
Miller also noted that society as a whole would be much healthier if more full-time, long-term workers were earning a living wage. He cited the robust U.S. economy during the 1990s as an example.