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Opinion | The MIT Professor Defining What It Means to Live

Around the same time, however, followers of a very different tradition were claiming that morality had no relevance to the question of wages. In 1926, one scholar called a “just” wage “a contradiction in terms.” By the 1980s, many economists had fully embraced this view, and a philosopher claimed the competitive market was a “morally free zone.”

But to exclude moral considerations from markets is itself a moral choice, even if the calculus is not always simple. Some employers with razor-thin margins might be unable to pay a living wage, and even Ryan argued that such businesses should not be obligated to do so during a rough patch. In the long run, however, Ryan held that part of being a successful business was paying a living wage. Those that did not should eventually go out of business.

And while it is a common refrain that a living wage would force employers to hire fewer workers and thus destroy jobs, there are persuasive empirical and philosophical responses to this objection. The stagnation of real wages for American workers does not reflect their low productivity so much as the increasing concentration of wealth within companies. In 1965, the average top chief executive made 21 times as much as a typical worker in America. In 2020, the ratio was 351 to 1.

For those who want to pay a living wage, Dr. Glasmeier’s tool is a good start. Even with its omissions, the calculator still generates figures for most locations that are far above the federal minimum wage of $7.25. For a single parent of one child in Kansas City, Mo., for instance, its living wage estimate is $30.02. In Santa Clara County, Calif., the heart of Silicon Valley, it’s $52.12.

These figures show the inadequacy of a campaign for a $15 minimum wage; in many areas, a more realistic goal would be a $50 minimum wage. And even these numbers likely understate the true cost of living. Phones get dropped, cars get parking tickets, Covid scares require a series of tests, and emergencies mean missed shifts at work or finding a last-minute babysitter: These sorts of costs add up.

Reasonable people can disagree about what sort of life a living wage should make possible. But if it feels wrong that the person who cares for your children or delivers your packages is not paid enough to go out to dinner once a month, save anything for retirement or take a vacation, then the definition of a living wage must include more than Dr. Glasmeier’s current categories. Companies that enjoy the reputational benefits of paying a living wage must also confront the meager subsistence that Dr. Glasmeier’s influential definition actually enables.

While her efforts to create an empirically defensible, geographically precise and broadly used living wage calculator are admirable, the concentration of so much influence in her hands is also unsettling. If Dr. Glasmeier had decided not to include a category for civic engagement in 2021, for instance, would this make it acceptable for the children of working Americans never to join a sports team, go to the movies or attend a summer camp? Conversely, how might recent history have changed if she had made her definition more generous long before the 2016 election and major employers had followed her advice?

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