The ongoing effort to establish a legal living wage in the U.S. has origins in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Catholic social teaching and activism. The priest-economist John A. Ryan presented a moral argument for a living wage, grounded in Catholic anti-individualism and natural rights traditions, which helped to fuel early minimum wage campaigns. Ryan was one of the chief advocates for minimum wage legislation in the U.S. His influential 1906 book A Living Wage: Its Ethical and Economic Aspects brought together Catholic social teaching with American republican ideals to argue that everyone has an “indestructible” God-given right to a “decent livelihood.” Ryan collaborated with activists from varied religious and secular backgrounds to draft, lobby for, and implement several of the first minimum wage laws in the country—state laws which covered only women and children. These living wage advocates continued their work throughout the 1920s, when the Supreme Court declared the District of Columbia's minimum wage unconstitutional, and in the 1930s, when the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 built upon the foundations of the state laws to establish a federal minimum wage. Despite these accomplishments, a legal living wage is still not a reality in the U.S. However, twenty-first century activists have revived the living wage movement; they have built a broad coalition and strong public support on the foundation laid by Ryan and his diverse circle of minimum wage supporters a century ago: the moral imperative of a establishing a living wage for all workers.
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Laura Murphy; An “Indestructible Right”: John Ryan and the Catholic Origins of the U.S. Living Wage Movement, 1906–1938. Labor 1 March 2009; 6 (1): 57–86. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/15476715-2008-045
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