I think that everyone living in a prosperous society, like the United States, has a right to a living wage, which will allow them to buy necessities (food, shelter) as well as provide them with some money to enjoy small luxuries (a movie, a night out). People need to be able to obtain the necessities in order to live and to stave off the physical pain that comes from being hungry, cold, or sick. Individuals who do not possess money for even small luxuries lack dignity, as they are constantly reminded of their penury vis-à-vis their neighbors. Their shame is enhanced by their helplessness; they cannot bask in the feelings of power that come from being able to purchase small (or large) frivolities. No resident of a first-world country, such as the U.S., should have to suffer in this way.
If we assume that all people in the U.S. have a right to a living wage, we still have to determine who has the responsibility to provide these individuals with the money. In the United States, citizens (and sometimes non-citizens) can obtain money both via their work, from local, state, and federal agencies, and from private, non-profit organizations. I think it falls on companies to pay their employees living wages; firms should take this action even if the government or non-profits are willing to shoulder some of the burden of providing for their workers. The reason for this belief is simple; people derive much of their (feelings of) self-worth from garnering paychecks. A person who receives the same amount of money via a dole is not going to obtain the self-satisfaction that comes with working for a living. This feeling is integral to one’s dignity.
While companies may have an ethical obligation to pay a living wage, as the articles demonstrate, many of these firms do not even pay subsistence salaries, let alone a living wage. Americans have attempted to ameliorate this issue by refusing to buy from corporations that run “slave shops.” Governments have tried to rectify this problem by instituting minimum wage laws and by ensuring that workers are able to unionize if they so choose. Despite these efforts, tens of millions of Americans still do not earn a living wage. Many companies, who are not guided by ethical principles, find it disadvantageous to pay their employees this salary. Is there another way to incentivize these firms to change their behaviors?
None of the authors that I read for class mention using tax incentives to encourage companies to pay a living wage to all workers; however, it might work. Both Democrats and Republicans would probably support a law which reduced taxes for companies that paid their lowest wage workers more than a subsistence wage. Republicans would like the fact that the scheme did not create new, overt regulations while Democrats would be enticed by the plan’s focus on improving the lives of indigent Americans. Local governments already have something similar in place; they will reduce or eliminate property taxes if a company promises to hire a fixed number of people at a defined salary or hourly rate.
Of course, in order for this type of idea to work, the federal government would need to amend its guidelines for determining the poverty level. However, that discussion will have to wait until another time.