Marching in 97 degree heat on the blacktop of the Selma Highway was not easy. But, I only had to do it for a day. As I marched under the blazing August Alabama sun, I thought about centuries of people living in poverty who have worked all day, all summer, in that heat—in cotton fields, in factories, on roads, on roofs.
Ta-Nehisi Coates eloquently describes in his recent book, Between the World and Me, how racial injustice has physical effects on people’s bodies. White Americans perpetrated the very abuse he describes on the bodies of those who walked the same highway fifty years ago. That abuse is becoming more visible as we open our eyes to the wounds of racial injustice today. And we are also finally starting to see the insidious physical abuse of poverty. Working in the heat is draining, but when you are unable to afford nutritious food, your sleep is shortened by multiple jobs and family responsibilities and illness often goes untreated because you cannot afford an unpaid sick day, poverty starts to destroy your body.
And then it can attack your spirit. As Cornell William Brooks, President and CEO of the NAACP said to us on the steps of the Alabama Capitol building in Montgomery, we need a living wage because “we understand that jobs are not about dollars only but about dollars and dignity.” Working full time should allow every American to live a life of dignity. But it doesn’t.
The current federal minimum wage has not kept up with inflation, and at the current amount of $7.25/hour, an employee who is working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year earns only $15,080, which is not enough to lift a family of two out of poverty. This has caused the number of full-time workers living in poverty to double since the late 1970s.
It does not need to be this way. A bill currently under consideration in Congress, the Raise the Wage Act (S. 1150/H.R. 1250), would bring the federal minimum wage to $12/hour by 2020 in a series of gradual increases. The National Employment Law Project reports that the increase would bring dignity and new economic security to millions of our fellow citizens:
- 35 million workers (more than one in four);
- 30 percent of wage-earning women (19.6 million women);
- 35 percent of African American workers; and
- 38 percent of Hispanic workers.
The Jewish obligation to treat workers fairly appears over and over in the Torah. As does the need to see and respond to poverty in our midst. In this week’s parsha, Ki Teitzei, we read, “…You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to the Eternal against you and you will incur guilt.” (Deuteronomy 24:14-15) When fellow Americans, our “kin,” are working full-time and still unable to care for their bodies, their spirits, and those of their family, we must act. That is the responsibility we must assume when we have our day in the sun.
Blog by: Rabbi Ariana Silverman