Chapter 1: Making a Decent Living

For years, our national rhetoric forcefully proclaimed that if someone does not want to be in poverty, they should just work like everyone else and they will be fine. The American Dream has always assured us that, with the right amount of hard work, anyone can be successful. Looking around, it is clear that this idea of the American Dream is not true anymore, if it ever was. Today, the majority of people experiencing poverty who are not retired, in school, or disabled, are working. Unfortunately, in the 21st century, working a full-time job in the United States does not mean a person can adequately provide for themselves or their family.

The numbers are stark: a full-time minimum wage worker earns an annual pre-tax annual income of $15,080. This doesn’t even begin to approach the 2016 federal poverty threshold for a family of four, at $24,563.1 Instead of equipping people to provide for themselves and their families, employers paying these poverty wages set their employees up to barely get by and force them to access federal safety net programs to make ends meet. While the majority of states already passed higher state-wide minimum wage legislation, Congressional action is needed to raise the federal minimum wage, which has not changed since 2009 and continues to decline in purchasing power every year.

To make up for low-wages, workers often choose to work overtime, at second or even third jobs if their circumstances allow. In December 2017, more than 7 million workers held multiple jobs.2 However, the opportunity to work overtime or full-time is not always available; in December 2017, nearly 5 million workers would have preferred full-time employment over their current part-time work.3

While the December 2017 unemployment rate of 4.1% is the lowest it’s been since the Great Recession, not all workers experience the increase in employment equally. The unemployment rate for Black workers is significantly higher than the white unemployment rate.4 Inequity persists in wages as well. The median Black household income in 2014 was about $43,300 while white household income was $71,300.5 Our nation can and must do better to ensure good jobs are available and workers, especially people of color, are paid a living wage.

The decline in union membership across the country is an important factor in lower wages and reduced benefits for workers. Between 1983 and 2017, the number of employed union members declined by 2.9 million.6 This decline in collective bargaining has had a serious impact on wages and working conditions. Supporting unions, family-friendly workplace policies, and living wages are some of the most effective ways people of faith can uphold the dignity of workers and all people. Catholic Social Justice teaches that work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation.

Reflecting on Wages and Employment

Sister Quincy Howard, OP, a Dominican Sister and NETWORK Government Relations Fellow shares her reflection on wages.

A Personal Story about Wages and Employment

Darius Cephus shares his experience organizing for higher wages in Massachusetts

Facts and Figures
  • 42% of workers in the U.S. made less than $15 an hour in 2014.7
  • In 2014, more than 50% of Black workers and close to 60% of Latinx workers made less than $15 an hour.7
  • More than half of all hourly workers earning wages at or below the federal minimum wage were over 25 years old in 2016.8
  • The 7.7% unemployment rate for Black workers and 5.0% rate for Hispanic workers are significantly higher than the 3.5% white unemployment rate.4
  • 7% of all workers are union members, amounting to 14.8 million workers in 2017.9
Words of Wisdom
The obligation to earn one’s bread by the sweat of one’s brow also presumes the right to do so. A society in which this right is systematically denied, in which economic policies do not allow workers to reach satisfactory levels of employment, cannot be justified from an ethical point of view.

-Pope John Paull II

The fight is never about grapes or lettuce. It is always about people.

-Cesar Chavez

We Pray

Merciful and just God, we offer thanks for the privilege to be participants in this struggle towards dignity and justice for all of your children. We believe that working for victories that bring marked improvements to people everywhere is one of the deepest and most meaningful expressions of our faith.

In this challenging time, when it seems each day is a struggle to keep hope alive, we pray for respect, fairness, and prosperity for all working people and their families.

We pray for immigrants and refugees, that they may be free from the terror of wondering whether today will be the day that their family is torn apart by unjust deportation.

We pray for people of color who live in fear of police power and worry for the safety of their bodies each day; we reaffirm that Black Lives Matter.

We pray for our Muslim and Jewish sisters and brothers and all who are subject to abuse and harassment because of their faith.

We pray for all women and every person who has been the victim of sexual assault or misconduct.

Loving God, make us vessels of peace, justice, and reconciliation. Help us heal the wounds of this nation and restore the promise of a welcoming America where all working people enjoy family-sustaining wages and benefits, dignity and satisfaction in their labor, and the agency to powerfully organize against abuse and injustice.


Spanish Translation:

Dios misericordioso y justo, te damos las gracias por el privilegio de ser participantes en esta lucha por dignidad y justicia para todos tus hijos. Creemos que trabajar por las victorias que aportan mejoras a personas en todas partes del mundo es una de las expresiones más profundas y significativas de nuestra fe.

En estos momentos difíciles, donde parece que es una lucha diaria mantener viva la esperanza, oramos por el respeto, la equidad y la prosperidad para todos los trabajadores y sus familias.

Oramos por los inmigrantes y los refugiados, para que puedan liberarse del terror de preguntarse si hoy será el día en que su familia va a ser separada debido a la deportación injusta.

Oramos por las personas de color que viven con miedo a la policía y se preocupan por su seguridad cada día; reafirmamos que la vida de los Afro Americanos vale (Black Lives Matter)

Oramos por nuestras hermanas y nuestros hermanos musulmanes y judíos, y por todos los que sufren abuso y acoso debido a su fe.

Oramos por todas las mujeres y todas las personas que han sido víctimas de agresión o acoso sexual.

Amado a Dios, haznos recipientes de tu paz, tu justicia y reconciliación. Ayúdanos a sanar las heridas de esta nación, y restablecer la promesa de un Estados Unidos que da la bienvenida a todos, y donde todos los trabajadores disfrutan de salarios y beneficios familiares, dignidad y satisfacción en su trabajo, y la capacidad para organizar y luchar fuertemente contra el abuso y la injusticia.


Written by Rev. Doug Mork, Board President at Interfaith Worker Justice

Reflection Questions
  • Does the difference between our minimum wage and cost of living seem acceptable in a just society?
  • What are some ways you can think of for jobs to better reflect the dignity of all workers?
Additional Resources

Learn more about wages and employment in the 21st Century:


1. Semega, Jessica L., Fontenot, Kayla R., and Kollar, Melissa A. Income and Poverty in the United States: 2016. U.S. Census Bureau. September 12, 2017,

2. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Persons Not In the Labor Force and Multiple Jobholders by Sex, Not Seasonally Adjusted. January 2, 2018,

3. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employed Persons by Class of Worker and Part-Time Status. January 2, 2018,

4. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Employment Situation. January 2, 2018,

5. Pew Research Center. On Views of Race and Inequality, Blacks and Whites Are Worlds Apart. June 27, 2016,

6. Dunn, Megan and Walker, James. Union Membership in the United States. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. September 2016,

7. Huizar, Laura and Tsedeye Gebreselassie. What a $15 Minimum Wage Means for Women and Workers of Color. National Employment Law Center, December 2016,

8. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. BLS Reports: Characteristics of Minimum Wage Workers, 2016. April 2017,

9. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Economic News Release: Union Members Summary. January 19, 2018,