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The Shmittah Year and Raising the Minimum Wage

Rabbi David Cooper, A FAME Steering Committee member, reflects on the importance of raising the minimum wage in context of a biblical mandate:

Every seven years in ancient Israel, the country was supposed to go on a nation-wide sabbatical. This was called the shmittah year. The Torah (in Deuteronomy 15) describes how the land would lie fallow, how debts were forgiven, how both poor and rich survived by gleaning from the untended yield of the fields and from using up accumulated surplus. It was the biblical mandate to make a more level playing field of economic life. And this current year is officially a shmittah, a time for society-wide introspection and action.

In talking about the shmittah, the KL David BK All ReligionsTorah simultaneously affirms that poverty can be eradicated, but also affirms that it is likely to persist. An apparent contradiction that could lead to cynicism and complacency. But the Torah the warns society, “Should there be needy among you… do not harden your heart nor close your hand.”

This heart-hardening and hand-closing is what I hear when someone argues that there would be more jobs if we lowered wages. So why not lower minimum wage to $3 an hour? The response? A person can’t live on $3 an hour. Exactly. But one who rejects a $3 an hour as unsustainable, but accepts $8, clearly is out of touch with real people trying to survive on a minimum wage. These are mostly not high school students seeking extra pocket money, rather the vast majority of low-wage workers are people trying to survive with their families, children and rent payments.

Here in Oakland with Measure FF, we raised the minimum wage to $12.25 an hour, and this will help. But that amount is not going to go far with housing costs rising again, with tuition of even state-funded higher education steadily increasing. And medical insurance, an indispensable necessity, cuts take-home pay even with Obamacare . But I supported Prop FF (and Obamacare too) because we need to raise the floor – but we must recognize that this can only be a floor, not a ceiling. And we cannot be complacent and accept that the battle for a living wage has been won at $12.25 an hour.

That hourly will not keep lower-wage workers in Oakland if we turn affordable neighborhoods into bedroom communities for Silicon Valley. It will not enable minimum wage workers to send their children to college. So this struggle must also engage us on many fronts: wages, health care, housing, education, and mass-incarceration. And it will have to persist long after this shmittah year.

So with the collective action of many community-based citizens groups we worked hard to draft, educate and get out the vote that passed Measure FF in November and which as of March 1 is now in effect. Yay! A shmittah year victory. The Torah’s call to reject cynicism and complacency has been reaffirmed by community organizing and voter action. We will need to remember how effective our collective efforts can be as we take on the efforts necessary to make the playing field fairer in the years to come.

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Rabbi David J. Cooper serves Kehilla Community Synagogue and is active in FAME (Faith Alliance for a Moral Economy) and in O.C.O. (Oakland Community Organizations).