Friday, February 22, 2008

A Concrete Estimate of a Living Wage: An Excerpt

by Msgr. John A. Ryan



A more precise determination of a "decent livelihood" necessary. It can be made with sufficient exactness for practical needs. A decent livelihood may be taken either absolutely or relatively to the conventional needs of a class. Estimates by various authorities of a decent livelihood in erms of goods. The slight discrepancies due to different viewpoints. Detailed statement of the lements of decent living for every section of the family. Various estimates of the money measure of a Living Wage at different times during the last fifteen years. The question whether the proportion of workers getting less than Living Wages has declined in that period.

According to the argument of the last chapter, a decent livelihood for the adult male laborer means a wage capable of maintaining himself, his wife, and those of his children who are too young to be self-supporting, in a condition of reasonable comfort. (Henceforth when the phrase, "a decent livelihood," and "a Living Wage," are used without qualification they are to be understood in this sense.) The question naturally arises, what precisely does this imply in terms of goods or money? Unless an attempt is made to answer it, the whole discussion of wage-rights and obligations remains too abstract, too vague, to be of much practical value. There would, in fact, be some force to the objection that all the workingmen of America are even now paid a Living Wage.

Evidently the question before us cannot be answered with absolute precision. The needs of men and their powers of making an effective use of a given amount of goods or money are too dissimilar to find a perfectly exact expression in any common denominator. And even if a common rate of wages would bring precisely the same degree of comfort to all the families depending upon it, there remains the supreme difficulty of translating "reasonable comfort" into more concrete terms. In all probability the individual estimates of no body of men, however competent and well meaning, would be in entire agreement. And no prudent person would assert that a slight deduction from the amount that he regarded as certainly sufficient for a decent livelihood would render the remainder certainly insufficient.

Nevertheless, the question can be answered with sufficient definiteness to safeguard the human dignity of the laborer and his family, and that is all that any one cares to know. We can distinguish twilight from darkness, although we cannot identify the precise moment when the one merges into the other. Though we cannot say just when artificial light becomes more effective than that of the waning day, we usually call it into service before the approaching darkness proves notably inconvenient. Thus it is in the matter of a Living Wage. Some rates of remuneration we know to be certainly adequate, and others to be no less certainly inadequate.

While we may not be able to put our finger on the precise point of the descending scale at which the rate ceases to be sufficient, we can approximate it in such a way that the resulting inaccuracy will not produce notable inconvenience. We can, at least, define a limit below which it is wrong to go, while not committing ourselves to the conclusion that the limit is sufficiently high. In other words, a wage under the limit would be regarded as certainly too low, but a wage at the limit, as doubtful. An estimate of this character can be so formulated as to have a very high practical value.

A decent livelihood may be understood either absolutely or relatively. In the former sense it is an unvarying standard that is applicable to all conditions of human existence. It takes no account of needs based on custom or on any subjective appreciation of the requisites of welfare, nor does it make any allowance for the possibilities of progress. It is measured solely by man's essential and universal needs, and describes in general terms the requisites of normal and reasonable human life. And it may obviously be either below or above what is known as the conventional standard of a community. For example, the men and women of America could live decent and becoming lives, absolutely speaking, without wearing shoes during the summer season. On the other hand, a conventional standard of living, though .satisfactory to the people with whom it obtains, may fall short of the absolute norm. If the description given in Dicey's "Peasant State" is correct, a large class of the inhabitants of Bulgaria, apparently contented, do not live reasonable human lives. They have not the means of exercising that minimum of activity, physical, intellectual, and moral, which should differentiate the life of men from that of beasts.

While the conditions of existence indicated by the absolute standard constitute a minimum below which it is wrong for men to descend, they are not sufficient for decent living in the case of most civilized communities. Man is everywhere affected by two classes of needs: objective, or natural; and subjective, or acquired.

Through the influence of habit or custom he comes to regard certain of these acquired needs as essential elements of a decent standard of life. They differ relatively to different races, communities, ranks and classes of men, but to the persons among whom they have been developed they are of vital importance. Hence a decent livelihood, or a Living Wage, must conform in a reasonable degree to the conventional standard of life that prevails in any community or group. For, in order to live becomingly, men must possess not only those goods that are objectively necessary, but in some measure those that they think are necessary. Indeed, the latter may become more indispensable to decent living than some of the things that are objective and primary; for men will sometimes procure them at the expense of the others. Thus, many persons, men as well as women, will deprive themselves of necessary food rather than appear among their neighbors in garments that are not in accordance with the conventional modes. At any rate, the inability to satisfy the more important of the conventional needs always involves a grave injury to self-respect, and therefore subjects human beings to hardships that are incompatible with normal and reasonable living. Finally, owing to the development of new wants, a decent livelihood now may be below the standard of decency that will prevail ten years hence. To ignore the newly developed wants then would be as harmful as to ignore existing wants now; hence a Living Wage is relative not only to the community or class, but to its different stages of development.

The content of a Living Wage for the laborers of America will be described first as a certain quantity of goods and conditions of living, and then in terms of money. The following estimates will prove suggestive and helpful:

"Undoubtedly the first moral charge on the national income is such a sum as is necessary to bring up a family, providing for health, education, efficiency of work, and the conditions generally of a moral life. Anything below such a level subjects human beings to hardships and temptations to which they should not be exposed, and to conditions in which men and women are not free but in bondage to physical wants. If the present system, or any system, did not promise this at some not distant period, we should have to say, like Mill, that, if this or communism were the alternative, all the difficulties, great or small, of Communism would be but as dust in the balance."

"The necessaries for the efficiency of an ordinary agricultural or of an unskilled town laborer and his family, in England, in this generation, may be said to consist of a well-drained dwelling with several rooms, warm clothing, with some changes of under- clothing, pure water, a plentiful supply of cereal food, with a moderate allowance of meat and milk, and a little tea, etc., some education and some recreation, and lastly, sufficient freedom for his wife from other work to enable her to perform properly her maternal and her household duties. ... In addition, perhaps, some consumption of alcohol and tobacco, and some indulgence in fashionable dress are in many places so habitual that they may be said to be conventionally necessary, since in order to obtain them the average man and woman will sacrifice some things that are necessary for efficiency."

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