Monday, December 10, 2012

Dr. Phil does Social Justice

I've never actually listened to Dr. Phil's show, but I've been told that his advice often boils down to, "just stop it." Regardless of your problem, it could be solved if you'd just have a little willpower and change your behavior. Anyone who has been in challenging life situations can you tell that willpower can only take one so far. Some situations are not completely within our control.

I recently had a conversation with a friend in which he defended the right of businesses not to pay a living wage to every employee. He argued that capitalism is not compatible with egalitarian standards of living and companies should not be vilified for failing to provide social justice. While I'm not convinced the situation is as black-and-white as he painted it, I'll concede the point that it is unrealistic to expect retail cashiers (as just one example) to be paid a living wage.

When I pressed the issue, though, I was reminded of Dr. Phil. Given that this friend and I both value social justice, I asked what he thought people should do who needed a living wage (i.e. supporting a family) and could only find entry-level, low-paying employment. Apparently, they just need to work harder. They should find a different unskilled job with better wages. Like what? The only example provided was manufacturing, which is not a thriving sector of our current economy. If they can't find that, they should pursue training or education in another field where they can excel.

There are so many problems with this. Employers are not beating down the doors to find unskilled laborers. Our society currently has many skilled laborers unable to find jobs, even entry-level, low wage positions. Additional training requires money, which these workers don't have. Yes, loans and grants are available, but not to everyone. Additional training also requires time, a luxury many cannot afford while working two, three, or four jobs trying to stay afloat.

Finally, our abilities are on a bell curve. There are those in the work force who, regardless of how much additional skill they may wish to acquire, are unable to progress beyond a certain point. They are not the bottom of the curve with visible mental handicaps. They are just stuck in the "below average" zone with little hope of completing the certification or educational degree that might spring them into a better career.

I'm not saying companies are evil for paying less than a living wage to some employees. But I'm not willing to accept a blame-the-victim explanation that suggests these workers are just lazy, either. There are situations beyond our control.


  1. I actually think justice would demand that everyone be paid a living wage, don't you? If you can't earn enough to live on, the government has to step in and pay for you, and that's bad for society too.

    It's true that unskilled labor isn't worth as much as skilled labor. But unskilled people still have a right to live off their work. Everyone has the right to live. Not sure how to force Wal-Mart to pay their workers more, but they certainly do have the moral responsibility to increase wages. The leadership of the company CAN afford it, based on their own paychecks.

    1. Yes, the laborer deserves his pay. Justice demands that everyone can earn a living wage. But capitalism and morality are often at odds, so I'm not sure it's realistic to expect all jobs to earn a living wage, even though that is the ideal.

      I have a weak grasp of economic realities in our current society. The distribution of wealth is definitely obscenely skewed. That being said, I don't know if even a significant pay cut for top executives would be enough to pay a living wage to all workers. I just don't know the numbers. I also don't know what the effect would be on inflation. I'm not saying these are valid reasons not to pay a living wage, just that I don't have enough knowledge to speak intelligently about the topic.