In the midst of all the breathless coverage of the economy “recovery” (is it recovering? Isn’t it? Why does this coverage sound like a pennant race in September?), and our myopic focus on the “jobs number,” the New York Times highlights a recent study which shows the structural problems of low-wage work in America.

According to the report, a single worker needs an income of $30,012 a year — or just above $14 an hour — to cover basic expenses and save for retirement and emergencies. That is close to three times the 2010 national poverty level of $10,830 for a single person, and nearly twice the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

A single worker with two young children needs an annual income of $57,756, or just over $27 an hour, to attain economic stability, and a family with two working parents and two young children needs to earn $67,920 a year, or about $16 an hour per worker.

The study makes clear its assumptions, and notes that there will be significant regional variations, especially given the range of housing costs in different areas. (Furthermore, the report will undoubtedly fuel some comments about the economic difficulties inherent in single-parenting, but it seems pretty important to note that the traditional Catholic teaching on just wage assumes that only one parent has to work full-time outside the home, so the above data for two-parent families is not much better!) But for all the quibbling, these numbers can help us see at the nickel-and-dime level what exactly it means to live in a society of injustice. Yes, injustice, systematically – for we undoubtedly rely on sub-$14/hour wage levels to buy many of the things we use in life every day.

Pope John Paul II makes clear what all recent popes have said: “[I]t is respect for the objective rights of the worker – every kind of worker: manual or intellectual, industrial or agricultural, etc. – that must constitute the adequate and fundamental criterion for shaping the whole economy.” (Laborem Exercens, 17) Chief among these is the just wage, for the pope goes on to say that “the justice of a socioeconomic system, and in each case its just functioning, dserve in the final analysis to be evaluated by the wahy in which man’s work is properly remunerated in the system.” (LE, 19) This is crystal clear.

All too often, this question becomes bogged down in objections over what counts as a “just wage” – and it is true that it is not as simple a naming a number (hence, the inadequacy of simple minimum wage law). Neverthelerss, there can be no doubt that, system-wide, we fall significantly short of a just wage. John Medaille, in one of the best Catholic economics books available, The Vocation of Business: Social Justice in the Marketplace points out that we can see this because our situation inevitably requires constant increases in two areas: one, in debt (often short-term debt) that covers over the gap between income and expenses, and two, subsidies and transfer payments, which de facto mean that the taxpayer “makes up” for the poor wages paid by business. Can’t pay the rent on your $8/hour job? Well, we’ll subsidize you with a voucher. But in fact, we are subsidizing the landlord and the employer! The entire system relies on our refusal to confront the central problem, that we won’t pay the prices needed to pay people what they deserve. We avoid the immediate consequences of that by applying what are in effect Band-aids, but these do not address the underlying disease. We can be sure there is no just wage so long as “payday loan” shops do a thriving business and slumlords need section 8.

The only way “out” of this situation is to patronize businesses that pay just wages. Famously, Costco pays its workers substantially higher wages than any other mega-retailer… and simply offers a smaller profit margin to its stockholders. In my CST class, I had the opportunity to find the pay rates of workers at dozens of American retailers… and in virtually every case, the stores are run by workers making $8/hour and managers making $12/hour, and the same goes for virtually all fast food franchises. And of course one knows well that the farmers behind this food are also not making just wages. One might consider starting with one’s food, and considering how one might acquire one’s food – both groceries and restaurants – within a system that pays just wages. I pay $5.99 for my organic, locally-produced gallon of co-op milk, and I can reasonably believe that everyone involved in getting me that milk is getting paid fairly (not least because I am on the board of the co-op, and the co-op contracts directly with a Pennsylvania dairy to get the organic milk, the price of which does not fluctuate like the price of commodity milk). True, the logistics and scale of a large chain COULD enable me to pay (maybe) $5.00 for this milk, and still think that everyone working to bring me the milk would be treated fairly. But I don’t think it could go much below that… even discounting any environmental issues! Just wages mean $5.00 milk. By doing this practice, I accustom myself to seeing prices that are “lower” as most likely hiding injustices – not just on milk, but on a whole array of items. Do I know this? No. It would be nice to imagine I could find other ways to assure myself of just pay all along the production line. And I try (did you know that Amazon pays its warehouses workers at Costco levels? And that your mailman definitely makes a living wage?)… but wouldn’t it be nice if we knew more about this? Then we could shop at stores with the slogan “Always fair wages. Always.”