62 Responses to Just How Much Is a Just Wage?

  1. Teresa says:

    These are interesting formulations to find out what a just wage might be today.

    But, one would have to add in the college expense factor for today’s times. In Father John Ryan’s time it was not a necessity for people to attend college or a trade school to earn a decent living wage. Now attendance at either college or trade school is a necessity and the sum per month that one pays for their loans can be quite high.

    I will be checking into Father Ryan’s book soon.

  2. Blackadder says:

    Father John Ryan’s time it was not a necessity for people to attend college or a trade school to earn a decent living wage. Now attendance at either college or trade school is a necessity.

    I’m pretty sure you don’t need a college education to earn $6.15 an hour.

  3. Teresa says:

    Even if a single person lived on $6.15 an hour that wage would be very hard to meet all the necessities of life nowadays. With this low wage a single person and especially a family would need government help. While help from the government is one thing for a temporary period of time, I don’t think that $6.15 per hour would be considered a fair wage to live on especially when it seems evident that one would need permanent assistance from the government if the person/family tried living on $6.15 per hour. This seems more like a college student’s wage or a teenager who lives at home with his parents.

    If a family meets the minimum cost of living in a given country is that really acceptable according to Catholic Social teaching?

  4. Foxfier says:

    Interesting– federal minimum wage is over a dollar more than that.

  5. Elaine Krewer says:

    I haven’t read or even heard of Father Ryan’s book before, but it’s interesting that he actually made an effort to define how much a living wage was. It’s also interesting that his calculations, even when adjusted for inflation, still come out well below the current federal minimum wage. Also, his hourly figures are somewhat skewed by the fact that the average work week was considerably longer in his time (48-60 hours, as opposed to 40 today), meaning the baseline annual wage figure was being spread out over more hours.

    I don’t know how he arrived at his figures for 1919 but I’m guessing they probably did NOT include the cost of owning an automobile, since that was not yet considered a “necessity” for most people, especially in cities where public transportation via streetcars and trains was readily available. If he included electric and telephone service in his estimates (those would have been available in urban areas but many rural areas lacked those services well into the ’20s and ’30s), well, that would have been for a very rudimentary level of service — just a few lights and maybe one party-line phone line — nowhere near what most households require today for appliances and electronics. The main household heating fuels at the time would have been coal or wood, and I’m not sure how those costs would compare to heating oil or natural gas today.

    In general I think a living wage should be paid for all full-time jobs that require education or training beyond high school. But, did Father Ryan ever tackle the question of whether unskilled entry-level jobs that were usually performed by children, teenagers, or housewives simply to supplement their family income, or provide pocket money for themselves since they did not have to support themselves, also required a living wage? If it were morally obligatory to pay the kid who mows your grass every week or the girl who babysits your kids while you go to a movie a “living wage,” very few people would be able to afford such services, and young people would lose the opportunity to gain valuable experience in handling their own money.

  6. M.Z. says:

    One of the significant differences between today and 1900 is housing expense. In 1900, I’ve seen figures between $400 and $4000 for housing. If we take a 1/3 of your proposed living wage today for housing, we end up with ~$400 to go towards housing for 5 people. Using the federal poverty guideline, you end up with $700/m. There are quite a few places in the country where you will have extreme difficulty finding housing with that budget.

  7. Foxfier says:

    Not sure how accurate this is, but this site has a “time capsule” for 1918.
    Price of a Gallon of Milk $.55 (9.32, modern)
    Price of a Loaf of Bread $.10 (1.41, modern)

    Milk is artificially controlled, but even the most fancy-smancy organic stuff in glass bottle is maybe six bucks a gallon. I don’t know what the bread they had looked like, but bargain loafs can be gotten for .99c (those ones with the roman on the emblem?) and up to about six bucks for the fancy ones.

    It also says the cost of a home was 4,821.00, which would be $68,102.96 in modern costs; There are houses at that price…. (Chose Spokane because they’re in neither a boom nor a bust.)

  8. Foxfier says:

    They didn’t have all the non-wage employment costs back then, either, did they? I know the shorthand formula I’ve been told for small businesses is figure hiring someone will cost half again their salary. (One of those radio finance shows where folks call in, so who knows.)

  9. Blackadder says:

    One of the significant differences between today and 1900 is housing expense. In 1900, I’ve seen figures between $400 and $4000 for housing.

    If you look at an inflation-adjusted Case-Shiller, it looks like real housing prices were only a little higher in 2000 than they would have been in 1900, though there were some sizable swings in the middle (and of course average house size has more than doubled over the period).

  10. Blackadder says:

    Even if a single person lived on $6.15 an hour that wage would be very hard to meet all the necessities of life nowadays.

    No doubt what Father Ryan (and others writing at the time) would have considered a normal and sufficient standard of living would now be considered intolerable poverty. Standards for what is sufficient seem to be a bit like our shadow; as we move forward it follows right along behind us. Which suggests that it may not be even possible to have a society where everyone receives a “living wage.”

  11. Elaine Krewer says:

    “I don’t know what the bread they had looked like”

    In 1919 it still came in solid loaves that purchasers had to slice themselves. Pre-sliced bread was first marketed in the late 1920s, and was such a popular innovation that it prompted the expression “the greatest thing since sliced bread.”

  12. Foxfier says:

    That does help a bit, but I was thinking more like was it the size of a “bread loaf” you get from a loaf-tin, or a “bread loaf” you get at the store (think wonderbread) or the “bread loaf” that’s baked on a pan after being formed? How much bread was there, what sort of grain was it?

  13. Tito Edwards says:

    I’m pretty sure you don’t need a college education to earn $6.15 an hour.

    I’m sorry Teresa, BA’s retort gave me a good chuckle.

    If you’re willing to use the bus, split the rent with more than one person in an apartment, and not eat out, you certainly can live off of $6.15/hour.

    Maybe if you rent the couch for $100/mo, then it’s certainly possible to live off of that.

  14. Blackadder says:

    Btw, Father Ryan’s book is available for free via googlebooks.

  15. Elaine Krewer says:

    I gather it was about the same size and shape as the bread loaves you see today. If you google “sliced bread”, you can find pictures of the 1928 newspaper advertisements for the very first bakery to sell sliced bread, the Chillicothe (Missouri) Baking Company. The loaves pictured look about the same as bread loaves today do. The town of Chillicothe, Mo., in fact, now bills itself as the “Home of Sliced Bread” and has an annual Bread Fest to commemorate its place in culinary history.

  16. restrainedradical says:

    I don’t know how Fr. Ryan arrived as his figures but I would insist that a living wage be relative to the standards of the community one lives in. The entire purpose of a living war is to ensure that every man can live a life of dignity. You can live in Zimbabwe in dignity without running water. You can’t do that in America.

    And why use a family of 5 and not a family of 10? Are we supposed to let the family of 10 live off less than a living wage? A living wage necessary varies according to the number of dependents. Any family receiving less should be aided.

    Adjusting for inflation isn’t necessary the best way to adjust Fr. Ryan’s figures. Real GDP per capita grew faster than inflation. In other words, Americans got wealthier. Using Fr. Ryan’s figures today adjusted for inflation would be appropriate if real GDP per capita was stagnate for 89 years. In 1919, GDP per capita was $805. If you only adjust for inflation, that would be $9,897 today. That’s somewhere between Cuba and South Africa. So $6.15/hour would be an appropriate living wage for a family of 5, in Cuba.

    If instead we adjust for unskilled labor wage increase (4.24% annualized since 1919), $1,400 to $1,500 then would be $56,388 to $60,416. That’s probably closer to what Fr. Ryan had in mind.

    Based on rough calculations I did a few years back, I think the federal poverty guidelines are too low. For a single person, I think $14,000 is appropriate and $5,500 for each dependent. For a family of 5, that would be $35,500.

  17. Foxfier says:

    The (mid-range neighborhood, new complex, Tacoma, gated community) place across the road has two bedroom apartments “perfect for roommates” at $650/mo, and three for $1060. (Actual cost would be roughly 700 and 1100, assuming the worst case of everything–they’re run by the same company as ours.)

  18. Foxfier says:

    My dignity is unharmed by someone else having three new BMWs while I have a used minivan, or a bicycle.

  19. T. Shaw says:

    Some want to provide everybody with a just wage. I think it should be done by government programs that could be expanded. But, first . . .

    One: Every charitable person wants everybody to earn a just wage that will allow all men (how sexist! the traditional head of the now-defunct nucular family) to support himself, his wife and children.

    Two: you probably cannot have a real-life economy where every man has a just wage. It is impossible in the real (even in the USSR, China, Cuba, Greece, Spain, Zimbabwe, etc.) world.

    Three: you may not condemn/demagogue the American, private sector because you cannot have numero One above. You cannot wage an unjust (nonviolent) war against your fellow citizens that own businesses. It is not charitable.

    Look it up. Don’t believe me. The federal government’s Internal Revenue Code has the “Earned Income Tax Credit.” It pays a negative tax (money for nothing from the government, i.e., my children and grandchildren) for a FAMILY man/person that files a tax return and has AGI below a set level. Try expanding that.

    PS: I can’t imagine that even this would be feasible in the volume needed, even without 50,000,000 more poor people coming in over the next 10 years.

  20. Foxfier says:

    Looks like 1910 is a funky year… it’s when they automated bread baking for the first time, so those loafs looked like now….

  21. restrainedradical says:

    Adam Smith put it best.

    Wealth of Nations:

    By necessaries I understand not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life, but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without. A linen shirt, for example, is, strictly speaking, not a necessary of life. The Greeks and Romans lived, I suppose, very comfortably though they had no linen. But in the present times, through the greater part of Europe, a creditable day-laborer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt, the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty which, it is presumed, nobody can well fall into without extreme bad conduct. Custom, in the same manner, has rendered leather shoes a necessary of life in England. The poorest creditable person of either sex would be ashamed to appear in public without them. In Scotland, custom has rendered them a necessary of life to the lowest order of men; but not to the same order of women, who may, without any discredit, walk about barefooted. In France they are necessaries neither to men nor to women, the lowest rank of both sexes appearing there publicly, without any discredit, sometimes in wooden shoes, and sometimes barefooted. Under necessaries, therefore, I comprehend not only those things which nature, but those things which the established rules of decency have rendered necessary to the lowest rank of people.

  22. Teresa says:

    Thanks for the google book tip, Blackadder. I just downloaded the book and will read soon.

    Tito, I am glad you got a chuckle out of Blackadder’s retort. Blackadder’s response even gave me a laugh.

    It would seem that what is considered a just wage would depend on different variables such as inflation , GDP per capita, and varying prices for housing, food, etc. according to the various locations.

  23. Moe says:

    A wage “sufficient to enable [a man] to support himself, his wife and his children.”

    Whatever the income necessary, every child should be a member of a family housed with decency and dignity to enable it to grow up in a happy fellowship, without want for food, or clothing, or overcrowding, or slum surroundings. And every child should have the opportunity to attend school and/or college to attain its full development. Father Ryan knew not that our secular society would sacrifice children so as not to be inconvenienced. If he had known of the heinous sacrifice of children to occur in the future, it seems to me that a “just wage” would have been deemed irrelevant to him. I think his computations might have been on the assumption that the family would be inspired by faith in God and focused on worship. He never envisioned the present breakdown of family and society.

  24. Foxfier says:

    has nothing to do with your attempt to shift to GDP, or relative wealth of the nation.

    Feel free to define what you think is the abject minimum someone needs for a minimum wage job but which wasn’t needed back then.

  25. restrainedradical says:

    I’d consider a phone a necessity today. Electricity, indoor plumbing, a refrigerator, and education through high school. Do you disagree?

  26. Foxfier says:

    To be most efficient, I’d add in some sort of POV– even if it’s a motorcycle with a sidecar. There’s just too many things you need a vehicle for if you have a family, and transportation opens up a much wider range of jobs.
    POSSIBLY a bicycle with a cart would work, but I’m not sure it’s feasible for buying in bulk or getting to the doctor with three kids.
    (Buying in bulk for two on foot was not possible in any affordable housing, and public transportation is often not safe for someone who would be as tempting a target as a woman with three small children and a massive load of groceries.)

    Basic medical care is required for the gov’t schools– I believe there is help for this, though I can’t remember if it’s gov’t or private.

    It might be cheaper to use a track phone rather than having a line in the house– I’ve never had a land line, let alone an incoming-and-local-only one.

    Clothing–can be gotten from Goodwill etc at very decent prices, and often you can find footwear that would be rather expensive for a good price.

  27. Joe Hargrave says:


    “I would insist that a living wage be relative to the standards of the community one lives in. The entire purpose of a living wa[ge] is to ensure that every man can live a life of dignity.”

    Hmm. We agree this time. There’s no point in talking about a “just wage” unless these relative factors are taken into account.

    Of course, I favor reducing dependency on wages and replacing it with various forms of income earned through direct ownership of property.

    A “wage” is the market price of labor. Instead of talking about a just “wage”, we ought to talk about a just income and how it can be acquired.

  28. Donald R. McClarey says:

    I can imagine the shock and incredulity on the faces of my clients if I upped my fees to provide what I think is a “just fee” for my legal services. I would see the look on their faces of course only until they vanished in search of other attorneys who could provide them with legal services at what they considered a more reasonable cost according to prevailing market conditions. The problem with the concept of a “just wage” is that unless it is simply for informational purposes or philosophical musings, it takes a huge state to enforce it. Perhaps a better path is for most people, those able to compete in the market place, to arm themselves with the education, training and work experience necessary to allow themselves to get the highest income possible for the services they provide. Private charity, and government assistance, can aid those unable to compete.

  29. Art Deco says:

    Fr. Ryan offered that justice required a wage floor which exceeded the earnings of 48% of the male workforce and (scribbling on the back-of-the-envelope) would have been somewhere in the range of 2/3d of the national mean of a country already quite affluent by historical standards (though befouled). Catholic Social Teaching is a work in progress…

  30. Foxfier says:

    Well, there ARE things we can do to make wages more likely to support a family– remove regulations that currently prevent the simple, zero-experience jobs from being done by children and the deeply disabled for a low price, control the supply of labor (not in the crazy scifi or China way, but by controlling our borders– in terms of people and goods), lower the cost of raising children by removing tax related expenses to it, make unions for only one business instead of several (as those that ‘serve’ several businesses have less worry if one goes out of business), lower the costs of business (my mom does crafting out of the house in addition to a full time job- maybe five, ten shows a year, and her profits are lower than the gov’t costs alone), reform lawsuits so they cannot be used as a source of income or a harassment tool, lower the level of government control as much as possible (local politicians have a MUCH higher level of risk if they target a local industry for cheap grace or benefit)….

    There are two ways to try to get a fair wage:
    *control everything and enforce your goal (there will still be an underground economy, unless you’re in a police state such as the world has not yet seen)
    *try to set up a situation where your goals can most easily be achieved without triggering a profit-impulse towards subverting your goals
    Basically, forced and chosen; trying to avoid a false choice, but you either get to choose to do good or you’re forced to do it, so I think I managed….

    Sadly, our current situation falls into the first one, since we’ve got minimum wage that at least meets the theory’s level of support, but that law is widely subverted (under-the-counter pay, not legally hiring babysitters and lawn-mowing teens)

    {Since we haven’t figured out a reasonable cost to live, I’m using the only number we have.}

  31. LOL so we are into child labor and allowing big businesses get away with it again! Yes, that will help with the money! Child labor! Of course that will just put more money into the system making each person’s contribution that much less, just as it happened when it became two-income families! So let’s make it tougher on one-income wage earners!

  32. Phillip says:

    Another factor to consider is that most families don’t have three children and that both spouses work. That may not be what Catholics want but it is a fact. Catholics also have to realize that while current standards dictate a car, phone etc., there are things we really don’t need. We need a refrigerator but we really don’t need a phone. Certainly don’t need iPods and air conditioning. Don’t need TV, cable, game systems, and many people do not need cars. Many do not need to own homes.
    There are a lot of “needs” that are ultimately wants. Even in an affluent society. And that is a Catholic perspective.

  33. Foxfier says:

    Most forms of employment require a way to quickly contact the worker when he is not a work– even fast food workers require a phone of some sort.

  34. Phillip says:

    That’s become a manufactured need. If we are talking about restructuring society, let’s talk about real needs. Most people don’t need to be contacted by work quickly, that’s what some may want but its not a need. Fast food workers don’t really need a phone. If the manager of the McDonalds needs a replacement he can do what people did in the past – make due with who he had and do the line work himself. That’s what happened when McDonalds first started.

  35. Foxfier says:

    Who said anything about restructuring society? Government or law, yes, but society is notoriously resistant to control.

  36. Phillip says:

    I’m talking about restructuring what we perceive of as needs and that can happen at the personal level. I can recognize I don’t need cable, iPods and other things. Individuals can, and do, live without phones. We don’t need air conditioning to survive. We don’t need lots of things to survive. If people begin to live that way, then society will follow.

  37. Blackadder says:

    Most forms of employment require a way to quickly contact the worker when he is not a work– even fast food workers require a phone of some sort.

    Father Ryan thought that telephones were an inappropriate luxury. Nowadays, of course, it’s hard to imagine life without one (even kids in Africa have cell phones).

  38. Phillip says:

    Perhaps hard to imagine life without one, but possible to live life without one.

  39. Foxfier says:

    It’s possible to live life without indoor plumbing and electricity, just as my family did for some twenty plus years after Fr. Ryan was writing. (I actually know the exact year my mom’s family first got indoor plumbing– ’58, because they moved that year.)

    A lot of places you can’t live without air conditioning– the solutions that work when you’re in a two-room shack don’t work when you’re in an apartment complex, and heat can kill as easily as cold. (possibly easier, just less often– depends on if you mean “distance outside of the comfortable norm” or “likelihood it will kill you, on average”; a 45* rise in temp over “room temp” puts you at 120, while the same drop is 35*– which one shuts down cities?)

    Laws aside, there’s no reason a five-person family can’t live in a one-room apartment, even if current population levels mean it would have to have indoor plumbing, power and (in some or most areas) some sort of air conditioning.

  40. […] Can’t Live With It, Can’t Live Without It In my last post I looked at the question of how to calculate the just or living wage, using figures from Father […]

  41. Phillip says:

    Having lived in the South for years without AC as well as the Southwest for 18 without, it is possible to live without.

  42. Teresa says:

    I agree that AC is a luxury, especially since I’m living without it right now. A phone is a necessity since most, if not all places of employment, need a contact number to hire you and then to get in touch with you during your employment with that company. Cell phones (even long distance land lines are not necessary) cable, and the internet are not necessities. There are community centers and libraries that have free or low-cost internet access for those who do not have internet access in their homes.

  43. M.Z. says:

    I for one would be much more impressed with this austerity blather about how little one needs if the people proposing it would voluntarily live it. I’m afraid reading much of this is like hearing virgins discuss sex.

  44. Phillip says:

    Its kinda like those who talk about redistribution who don’t pay income taxes.

  45. Donald R. McClarey says:

    “Father Ryan thought that telephones were an inappropriate luxury.”

    My paternal grandfather also thought that. My grandmother did’t get a phone until after my grandfather’s death in 73. They also didn’t have a car, and didn’t have an indoor toilet until 68. Raising six kids on what a shoemaker could make in the Great Depression in Paris, Illinois left habits of thrift for a lifetime.

  46. restrainedradical says:

    I think, in general, a pre-paid cell phone provides a family a greater value than the money saved by a land-line. An AC isn’t necessary in most circumstances but try telling your kid to do his homework in 120 degree weather. Possible? Yes. But the cost of bringing the temperature down to 85 for a few hours may be less than the value even the poor place on the comfort and increased productivity.

  47. Phillip says:

    I’ll agree AC helps with productivity. Don’t know how people worked in offices in the summer prior to AC. Do know working outdoors in the summer heat in the South is a major drain.

  48. Tito Edwards says:

    Its kinda like those who talk about redistribution who don’t pay income taxes.


  49. Phillip says:

    Don’t know about how much they pay. I’m thinking more along the lines of the roughly half of Americans who don’t pay any or minimal income taxes. That would include a lot of our Academic betters.

  50. Blackadder says:

    I’m thinking more along the lines of the roughly half of Americans who don’t pay any or minimal income taxes.

    The reason so many people pay no income tax is because of the child tax credit. IIRC, M.Z. has several kids, and so it wouldn’t surprise me if he fell into that category. On the other hand, I’ve always found the idea of conservatives complaining that people aren’t paying enough taxes a bit unseemly, particularly given the pro-family aspect of the thing.

  51. Phillip says:

    I don’t have a problem with people not having high taxes. Just pointing out that some who speak the loudest for redistribution pay little if any taxes. Kinda like virgins talking about sex.

  52. JD says:

    I for one would be much more impressed with this austerity blather about how little one needs if the people proposing it would voluntarily live it.

    No one is proposing that austerity be mandatory or morally required. The point is, rather, to think about how much money people have a right to demand that other people give them. Clearly if Peter is demanding that Paul give him free money, Paul has a right to think about how much money Peter really needs.

  53. JD says:

    And needless to say, Paul isn’t obliged in any way to live at the same level of austerity that Peter does (when living on money taken from Paul).

  54. Mike Petrik says:

    Unfortunately, I don’t think that is needless to say at all.

  55. Foxfier says:

    Keeping a baby in a house that’s 100+ degrees is likely to make you a family of four, one way or another, especially when the least expensive housing doesn’t have the option of a crossbreeze for cooling. Ditto for older family members, or anyone else who is not in good normal health. (Thus, why I used words like “some” and pointed out that housing now is different from housing then.) Look at the deaths from that heat wave in France a few years back, or the emergency “cooling centers” in Seattle just last week. (I wouldn’t put Seattle on a list of places that need it to live, since our dangerously hot days are limited enough that you can set everything aside to go find a public place that is cooler, it’s just a recent example of high-profile response to heat risk.)

    arguments are not more or less accurate by who is offering them; it’s more than a little odd to see the traditional slam against Catholic priests talking about chastity and marriage on a site like this. If the root of someone’s argument is their own experience, then it’s about them, but there’s nothing inherently inaccurate about “virgins discussing sex.”

  56. Phillip says:

    Just using MZ’s line for rhetorical effect. I actually have no problems with virgins discussing sex.

  57. Joe Hargrave says:

    AC is not a luxury in Phoenix, let me tell you – old people can die without it, and even healthy people can easily succumb to heat stroke.

    Any assessment of necessities has to take in the society in which one lives – to simply exist physically at some location within a society is not enough, a person has to be able to participate to some minimal degree.

    Everyone needs a telephone, a means of transportation (even if its just a bus pass or a bike in some cases), I would say everyone needs a computer, though people without Internet could always use a public terminal. Certain appliances, electricity, plumbing, etc.

    I’m not saying it is the duty of the state to provide these things, but any discussion of “need” has to take them into account. Otherwise you’re just being silly.

  58. Elaine Krewer says:

    “Don’t know how people worked in offices in the summer prior to AC.”

    I believe they had shorter hours, shut down for several days or more when it got dangerously hot, and I’m guessing, learned to have a much higher tolerance for sweat and body odor.

    “AC is not a luxury in Phoenix”

    I suspect that air conditioning is probably one of the biggest factors responsible for the economic prosperity of the Sun Belt states — that and the removal of racial segregation laws probably have done as much if not more to contribute to the economic growth of the South and Southwest as have low taxes and right to work laws.

  59. Phillip says:

    Just so Elaine. People wouldn’t live there before AC and the vast majority of those that lived there prior to AC, well, lived there. But we were talking about a living wage for a husband and wife and the children they were raising. So again, they don’t really need AC even if the elderly might (or they might move to cooler climes.) I know. I lived in the Southwest without AC. Also in Southern Spain where almost nobody has AC. Hits 120 in spots during the summer.

    Agree not everyone needs a computer as those can be found in libraries. Phones used to be found throughout towns and cities. Once upon a time it took ten cents to work one and then 25 cents. If you didn’t have enough money could do something called a collect call. Those phones could easily make a comeback.

    Again, many things we want, not so much we need.

  60. […] Catholic as to what priests from the 1800′s :} thought was a just wage for families. (http://the-american-catholic.com/2010/07/12/just-how-much-is-a-just-wage/) I think it is appropriate to update things with a little authoritative input from Mama Church- […]

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