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Statement of Rabbi David Saperstein Director, Religious Action Center Of Reform Judaism on the Need for a Living Wage
January 11, 2000

I am Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. At the recent convention of our parent organization, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 4000 delegates overwhelmingly passed a resolution supporting living wage campaigns. We did this because for more than 3000 years our tradition, our teachings, and our values have instructed us to provide fair and timely wages to the laborer.

Among the oldest known codified labor laws in human history is this line, "You shall not oppress a hired laborer that is poor and needy, whether he be of your people or of the strangers that are in the land within your gates" (Deuteronomy 24: 14-15). And this one, "one who withholds an employee's wages, it is as though he deprived him of his life" (Babylonian Talmud Baba Metzia 112a). Underlying these rules was the belief that "the Earth is the Eternal's and the fullness thereof" — that what we own we own in a trust relationship with God and that we are required by justice and righteousness to share God's wealth with those of God's children who are less fortunate than us.

We live in a very special moment in history. A booming economy, a strong dollar, and low inflation have given to most Americans perhaps the highest standard of living ever known by any group of people in all of human history. This is a blessing — and a responsibility. For we must ensure that this prosperity extends to all. And while we may enjoy the blessing, we are failing to meet the responsibility.

The minimum wage no longer sustains a family of four above the level of poverty in many urban areas. How hypocritical to push those in need off of public assistance in the name of "welfare to work" when at work these workers earn such low wages that they cannot support themselves and their families.

The gap between rich and poor is large and getting larger.

And in this most prosperous economy, at this juncture when the 2000 elections will help determine which direction this country will go, we have created in the working poor something of a bitter irony: People who work harder and longer than most, yet see less for their efforts. People who must work two or even three jobs just to get by. People for whom the traditional American dream of home ownership and financial security has been darkened by a growing American nightmare of consumer debt.

And in such an economy, to pay workers less than a living wage is certainly to withhold their rightful share of prosperity, and to deprive them of justice and fairness.

For a living wage is more than a specific salary and benefits.

It is the ability to own a home and build equity.

To provide for one's children and spend time raising them.

To fuel the economy by having money to spend.

To ensure the future by having money to save.

A living wage is nothing less than the ability to participate fully in the life of this nation.

We gather in the shadows of great leaders who believed that government can help create a just society.

We come together today to ask those who do lead and those who wish to lead to stand for a living wage.

We ask every candidate in every election to address the growing wage gap that too many have ignored.

And we ask federal, state and local governments to lead the way towards economic justice by passing living wage ordinances.

Let us enter this next American century by doing more than merely invoking our faith traditions —

Let us, as a nation, enter this next American century by living out the call to justice in those traditions, by ensuring that every full-time worker is paid a fair, decent, living wage.


The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, representing its 895 congregations across North America, whose membership includes 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the 1700 rabbis of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

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