Caring for the poor and downtrodden is central to most major religious faiths. For Christians, it is clear that Jesus was deeply concerned for the poor in his personal ministry on earth and in calling his followers to follow his example. The Proverbs tell us that in serving the poor, we lend to the Lord.
There is little debate that this is an end that we should all be working toward. There is, however, disagreement over the best means to achieve our stated end. How do we best help the poor in a way that elevates their inherent dignity as human beings? Can we mandate prosperity and human flourishing?
It would be nice to think that we could wave a magic wand that would eliminate poverty and the struggles that low-income workers endure: paying the rent on time, putting food on the table, and finding affordable childcare. In an effort to do this, the D.C. Council passed the Large Retailer Accountability Act this week. This will force “big box” retailers like Wal-Mart and Target to pay a minimum wage that is fifty percent higher than the D.C.-mandated minimum wage.
On its face, this seems like a plausible way to care for low-income and low-skilled workers who make up the demographics of minimum wage earners. We can make the argument that big-box retailers like Wal-Mart and Target “can afford it,” so why not ask them to pay more to support their employees? Wouldn’t this give their employees the assistance they need to escape the struggles of low-income?
Christians believe that we live in a fallen world which is dominated by scarcity. In this world, scarce resources have multiple and competing ends. We must find ways to allocate those scarce resources wisely and to contribute to the flourishing of mankind—this is what is means to be a good steward.
Realizing that all resources are scarce helps us to understand why this policy, while well-intentioned, cannot help to free us from the reality of scarcity. If Wal-Mart is forced to pay its employees higher wages there will be an accompanying tradeoff. There is no free money. Those resources that they put into higher wages will be taken away from other things, like Wal-Mart’s ability to offer the lowest prices for groceries and produce.
Did you know that Wal-Mart is the largest grocery retailer in the country? Its size is precisely what allows it to compete to offer low prices on necessary items like groceries, produce, and household items. This is part of the reason the city of D.C. wanted Wal-Mart to open six stores.