The Quest for a Living Wage: The History of the Federal Minimum Wage Program

The Quest for a Living Wage: The History of the Federal Minimum Wage Program

The Quest for a Living Wage: The History of the Federal Minimum Wage Program

The Quest for a Living Wage: The History of the Federal Minimum Wage Program

Excerpt

Minimum wage programs did not originate in the United States. The first contemporary programs have their roots in New Zealand and Australia, with intervening development in Britain and France. The precursors to all of these programs can be found as maximum wage proclamations dating back to the thirteenth century in England. While there is an interesting developmental process over the intervening centuries, it is beyond the scope of this book.

Minimum wage programs evolved in response to the inhumane problems of "sweating," which involved work at wages so low that they could not, and did not, support a socially acceptable level of wholesome family life. Out of this milieu came the desire to institute a level of compensation that became known as the "living wage." It was a wage rate that would permit average workers, working average hours to earn enough to sustain their famililies at a socially acceptable level of well-being. The concepts of sweating and a living wage were less-than-precise analytical devices, and many of those concerned about low wages and the consequences of low wages on individuals, families, and society crafted their own definitions. Politicians, the clergy, economists, social reformers, the courts, and others worried about these issues, and each group viewed solutions to the problem differently.

Considerable disagreement occurred because of the confusion between individual wages and family income. There was a general lack of clarity concerning the relationship between wages, hours of work, and income. There was a lack of clarity about worker productivity and appropriate wage rates. Nevertheless, those concerned about the deleterious effects of low wages on family well-being continued to press for legislative initiatives to resolve the problem. As this book shows, there were legislative responses, but they satisfied few proponents or opponents of minimum wage programs. In some cases . . .

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