Standard of Living as a Right, Not a Privilege: Is It Time to Change the Dialogue from Minimum Wage to Living Wage?

Date01 December 2017
Published date01 December 2017
AuthorRonald Adams
Standard of Living as a Right,
Not a Privilege: Is It Time to
Change the Dialogue from
Minimum Wage to Living
Dating back to the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt
argued that workers were entitled to a wage that allowed
them to enjoy a decent standard of living—a conviction
that led the president to propose the first federally-man-
dated minimum wage. Mr. Roosevelt’s proposal was met
with highly partisan resistance in congress and the
courts—reactions not different in kind from the highly
partisan resistance former President Obama experienced
in his proposal to increase the federal minimum wage
from its current level of $7.25 per hour. Reflecting Presi-
dent Roosevelt’s convictions, it is clear that many low
wage workers today are not, and cannot, enjoying a
decent standard of living at current minimum wage levels.
Further, many of the economic arguments raised in oppo-
sition to increasing the minimum wage have been thor-
oughly discredited: empirical evidence suggests that
increased minimum wages would not lead to dramatic
Ronald Adams is an Emeritus Professor of Marketing, Department of Marketing & Logistics at
The University of North Florida, Jacksonville, FL. E-mail:
C2017 W. Michael Hoffman Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University. Published by
Wiley Periodicals, Inc., 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA, and 9600 Garsington
Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK.
Business and Society Review 122:4 613–639
spikes in unemployment, massive substitutions of capital
for labor, business closings, and significantly increased
consumer prices. However, as compelling as arguments
for increasing the minimum wage may be, the reality is
that this may not be sufficient to alleviate the plight of low
income workers, particularly given the political nature of
minimum wage adjustments. Indeed, it may be time to
shift the national focus away from the minimum wage to
an emphasis on viable living wage legislation, a proposi-
tion consistent with the social justice perspective of con-
temporary ethicists.
In her critically acclaimed book, Nickel and Dimed (Ehren-
reich 2001), author Barbara Ehrenreich poignantly describes
her attempts at surviving in contemporary America by work-
ing a variety of largely unskilled jobs; for example, domestic
house cleaner, waitress, and Wal-Mart associate. Although Ms.
Ehrenreich was not discussing minimum wage, per se, her expe-
riences—that is, failures—clearly describe the plight of millions
of workers today who are trying to survive on minimum wage
level incomes, many of whom work in the service industries,
including most particularly, the retail sector (e.g., fast food).
economic realities of existing on minimum wage level incomes,
perhaps echoing Ms. Ehrenreich’s reporting, was aptly described
by Representative Frederica Wilson of Florida in a recent blog in
the Huffington Post:
Today, a parent working full-time at minimum wage will simply
not earn enough income to cover basic needs like food, cloth-
ing, and shelter. Even working a second job and well over 40-
hours a week, it’s mathematically impossible for many mini-
mum wage workers to pay for childcare, clothing, and gas.
In the United States, minimum wage provisions date back to
1938 as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s (FDR) “New
Deal” (Roos, Dave, “How Minimum Wage Works”). Speaking in
defense of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) in which he
proposed that every working American was entitled to a “decent liv-
ing,” Mr. Roosevelt, in 1933, reiterated his commitment to living
wages (Roosevelt 1933)

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