Living Wage and Low-Income Workers

by Jared Feldman

The American Jewish Community has a long and distinguished tradition of being in the forefront of efforts to reduce economic poverty in the United States. There are several reasons for this. In addition to the Jewish immigrant experience in this nation, the concept of “Tikkun Olam” (repair of the world) requires Jews to work for the welfare of all persons. Moreover, Judaism embodies a sense of ethical responsibility to everybody in our nation to assure them the basic necessities of life and to use our efforts to provide all people with the ability to maintain their economic well-being and dignity.

The JCPA calls upon its member organizations and all Jewish organizations to renew, with vigor, their efforts to “speak up,” to “judge righteously,” and to “champion the poor and the needy.” The work that Jews and Jewish organizations are doing to provide direct and indirect assistance to the poor and the needy in this nation must continue and grow.

Another means for championing the cause of the poor and the needy is for Jewish organizations to advocate for improved and enhanced government programs designed to enable workers to achieve economic well-being with dignity. There are several different ways to accomplish this end, including, but not limited to: setting a minimum wage, mandating higher wages for workers employed by enterprises receiving government monies (commonly referred to as “Living Wage”), mandating certain minimum employee benefits; and providing subsidies targeted to low-income workers for services such as earned income tax credits, childcare, healthcare, transportation, housing, and other subsidies. While the JCPA has endorsed many of these steps this is its first opportunity to discuss “living wage.”

In communities across the nation, “living wage” ordinances have been passed or proposed to raise the wages of very low income working people to help them provide for themselves with a measure of dignity and security. While federal minimum wage laws apply to virtually all wage-earners, “living wage” proposals apply to only those working for city or state contractors or for employers who receive other forms of government economic assistance, since most municipal and state employees are already paid a living wage.

For purposes of this resolution, a “living wage” is one that is above the poverty wage level for the community where the goods and services are provided at the time they are provided. Currently, in most (if not all) parts of the country, such a “living wage” would be above the federally defined poverty wage level for full-time workers. When we refer to “other forms of government economic assistance” we mean governmental subsidies, tax breaks or other economic aid provided by a local or state governmental body with respect to the provision of goods or services typically provided by that governmental body.

Typically, “living wage” ordinances require that government contractors or beneficiaries pay their own employees an agreed-upon “living wage”, while they are working on projects or services for the public entity. One key concept underpinning these ordinances is that goods and services paid for with taxpayer dollars should not be provided by persons receiving poverty level wages.

The JCPA believes that services directly or indirectly paid for by taxpayers should be provided by persons who receive at least a “living wage”, regardless of whether those services are delivered by governmental bodies or contractors or subcontractors of those bodies. Living wage ordinances should be developed on a community by community basis but in no event should a living wage be set at less than the federally defined poverty level. Where necessary, waivers are often provided or other special arrangements may be made to address any potential negative economic impact to smaller projects and to protect services to low-income constituents generally provided by nonprofit agencies that serve the poor.

The JCPA has long believed that those who work at full time jobs should earn enough to support their families above the poverty line. The promise of America and the requirements of a decent family life for all call on us to support municipal and state measures that would at least assure a measure of dignity to those who work for governmental bodies, contractors, or entities that receive tax benefits or other subsidies in connection with the provision of government-related services. The JCPA urges all affiliate agencies to work for the development of state and municipal legislation creating community-based living wage ordinances, which would make it possible for full-time workers to earn an income above the federally defined poverty level for their community. Such a living wage would apply to individuals whose wages are funded by the taxpayers, whether they are employees of governmental bodies or of government contractors, subcontractors, or recipients of other forms of government economic assistance. However, such legislation should be drawn so as not to have the unintended result of adversely affecting services provided to the poor.

Living wage ordinances vary from community to community depending upon the particular circumstances of each locality. Individual living wage proposals must be considered within the context of local needs and concerns by each community where these laws are proposed. The JCPA believes the organized Jewish community should: (1) be an active player in efforts to develop living wage initiatives appropriate to the needs of their particular localities, and (2) enhance its advocacy for government programs designed to enable workers to achieve economic well-being with dignity.


About the Author


Jared Feldman