Judaism & the Living Wage

Deb Kolodny, 3/24/2005

Speech for National Jewish Fast for Peace and Justice (Delivered at the national rally at the Capitol in July 2000, and reprinted in www.socialaction.com)

It is indeed an honor to be speaking at this very special gathering. As a Jew here among Jews, I am particularly pleased to be here during the Fast of Tammuz, because discussing the need to pass a Federal Living Wage Bill on a day of mourning and on a day of abstaining from physical sustenance feel profoundly compelling to me.

Today I mourn the failure of this great nation to live up to its promise. I mourn the failure of our leaders to understand that the existence of working poverty in this nation does a violence to each of our souls. And I mourn the loss of compassion and basic ethical conscience which seems to have infected the political leadership.

But as a great labor leader once said, donourn, organize! and I am here today to tell you about just that—about how a grass roots movement of labor activists and peace activists, and community activists and teachers and parents and yes, even of business people—has called our leaders to task and has challenged them to live up to their potential.

And today, on this day of abstinence, I am here to invite you to listen to the lessons of fasting. After all, in addition to the benefits of physical cleansing and heightened spiritual consciousness, one of the gifts that fasting provides is that of a sustained experience of hunger.

Why, you might wonder, is a sustained experience of hunger a gift? How doe the gnawing emptiness in our gut and the distraction caused by our light headedness bless us?

The answer to that question is no deep insight or great mystery. It i merely the simple truth that it is impossible for us to truly love another as ourself if we cannot identify with the experience of the other. If we ourselves do not know hunger, we cannot know the despair of those who live in poverty. We know that if a person cannot earn a Living Wage, the very sustenance of life is at risk. That wage earner, and those who depend on him or her for nurturance and sustenance, will go hungry.

Why is it so important that we understand this condition? And why is the Living Wage such an important response to our understanding? The answer i simple. Get a load of this. 32 million people, or 25% of the jobs in thi country pay a poverty wage. 25% of wage earners in our great land, in the land where Bill Clinton boldly states, s the economy stupiden asserting that his administration is such a success, cannot earn enough money to put food on the table.

Oh, you might say...that is what food stamps are for! If the minimum wage does not put food on the table to feed a family of four—and it doe not—let them work a second job or get food stamps! And, while this is an option, let me ask you...what hunger is left unsated when we ask people to work one or two or even three jobs-accumulating 60 or 70 or 80 hours of work a week in order for there to be enough food on the table so that they donave to be on the public dole? The hunger for familial contact. The hunger for rest. The hunger for a balanced life. And, what hunger is left unmet if family wage earners choose to work only that one job and supplement their income with food stamps? The hunger for dignity. The hunger for wholeness. The hunger for self respect. Take a moment to reflect on what you would feel like if you couldnarn enough money to put food on the table for your family. What does that hunger feel like in you?

As we taste ever so briefly the gift of being able to put ourselves in the shoes of the low wage earner who cannot feed his or her family, what hope do the campaign for a Federal Living Wage and do local living wage campaign across the nation offer?

Well, right down the road in Montgomery County, the hope of our living wage campaign is that corporations and non-profits which benefit from large service contracts or economic development subsidies from the County will pay their workers 10.44 an hour. 10.44 an hour is the federal poverty level for family of three in our county. It is also just a few cents more than what the minimum wage would be if it had been adjusted for inflation over the past 20 years. Can you imagine? Our minimum wage would be $10 an hour right now if it had been adjusted for inflation these past 20 years. When you think about it that way, the passage of a Federal or Local Living Wage bill isnome pie in the sky liberal do-gooder dream. It is just plain fair. It is just plain good sense. It is just plain justice.

Right now, Montgomery County is one of 75 local Living Wage campaigns going on around the country. I can tell you that our work is exciting. We see labor, faith, community organizations and non-profits joining together for the first time in decades to coalesce around this issue. Organizing, educating, and pushing our local legislatures to pass all kinds of bill which help the working poor and the poor in general. A good example of thi is in Montgomery County, where we have yet to pass the Living Wage bill, but we have successfully passed:

    an $11 million counter package including tax credits, and child care, training, and transportation voucher

    a bill cutting bus fares sharply giving significant financial help to the working poor, who use the buses in much higher numbers than the rest of the county residents.

    a budget resolution calling for all non-profit county contractor receiving over $50,000/year to disclose vital information regarding County tax dollars. The data collected will be vital in helping us make our case for a Living Wage Bill. In fact, many offer Living Wage efforts have been successful in passing a bill only after a disclosure bill like this one wa passed.

And as we continue the struggle down the road a few miles, the tally of successful LIving Wage Campaigns is mounting to 48 cities and municipalities, nationwide including cities as large as Chicago, Boston and LA. One of the latest additions to the roll call of successes is Alexandria, Virginia, right across the river. And you know what? The evidence show that these ordinances are helping families become self sufficient without creating job loss or costing local governments too much. In other words, the fears of our opponents are just plain WRONG!

It is critical that the federal government heeds this burgeoning grass root movement, and passes a Living Wage bill of its own. The Living Wage Responsibility Act, which you will be speaking with your representative about later on this afternoon wonave the sweeping effect that a legitimate, inflation adjusted minimum wage would have, but it is a critical first step in the right direction. Urge your representatives to follow the lead of their constituents. Encourage them to fast for a day — and to heed what their hunger teaches them about dignity, about justice, about our obligations to our neighbors.

And remind them. A Living Wage is a human right. And remind them that if they are uncomfortable with the welfare state, that is even more cause to pass the Living Wage bill. Because despite our unwavering support for any and all legislation which moves us towards the goal of ending working poverty, there is no substitute for a wage that people can live on.Not a handout, not a subsidy, not a substitute.

Thank you.