By Alí Bustamante, Ph.D. and Brendan Gottschall, S.J.
Catholic social thought (CST) gives us two fundamental principles with regards to wages: first, a just wage must provide “a dignified livelihood” for the worker and his/her family1; and, second, government is responsible for protecting the rights of workers.2 The just wage is thus a living wage and governments have an obligation to promote living wages through minimum wage laws and other labor protections.
Despite this moral imperative for employers and obligation on governments, wages in the Gulf South are among the lowest in the country. More than 1 in 5 workers in the region earn wages at or below $10 an hour (see Table 1). In 2016, the median/typical wage of $15 per hour in Mississippi was the lowest in the country. Even the highest median wage in the Gulf South of $16.47 per hour in Texas was well below the national median wage of $17.42 per hour.
Low wages contribute to deep and pervasive poverty across the Gulf South. In 2016, more than a quarter of residents in the region (over 15.7 million people) had incomes below 150% of the poverty line (see Table 2). Without sufficient incomes, “a dignified livelihood” is not within the reach of many working Americans and their families.
The response from state governments in the Gulf South to the injustice of worker poverty has been woefully lacking. State legislators across the South ought to support minimum wage laws and union membership while also strengthening labor protections. In actuality, many state legislatures have made the lives of workers more difficult by passing laws that preempt cities and counties from passing their own local minimum wage laws. As of July 6, 2017, 25 states, including all in the Gulf South, had passed minimum wage preemption laws.3