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Make a Living-With Dignity

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When religious leaders who were part of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) joined with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees

in 1994 to pass the nation's first living wage ordinance, no one realized that it was the beginning of a movement.

Since then, the religious community, labor unions, and community groups have come together to sponsor 122 living wage ordinances in towns large and small throughout the United States.

A living wage ordinance sets a wage level at a community standard, usually ranging from $9 to $12 per hour, for any contractor or subcontractor for a municipality or county. Earning a living wage affords people the opportunity to be self-sufficient and full participants in community life.

Congregations and people of faith have participated in this movement as a way to affirm the dignity and respect of all working people.

The ordinances are having an impact on poverty rates. The Los Angeles ordinance has increased pay for an estimated 10,000 workers, with minimal reductions in employment,  according to a study published this summer that traces the experience of working people since the first Los Angeles living wage law passed in 1997. The number of jobs with increased pay was among the largest in the United States.

For people of faith, living wage campaigns resonate with a history going back 100 years of supporting immigrant groups, labor struggles, and providing solidarity with low-income workers. In fact, the term, “living wage” has its roots in a book by that title written by Monsignor John A. Ryan in the early 20th century, arguing the principle that “employers had an obligation to pay a family wage, enough to meet ordinary family needs adequately.”

Today's living wage movement in the United States draws on the social convictions of a variety of religious traditions and applies them so that all may have enough.

Michael Ramos is director of social justice ministries at the Church Council of Greater Seattle, and a member of the board of the Positive Futures Network, publisher of YES! You can download the study of the impact of the Los Angeles Living Wage Ordinance at

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