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date: 16 October 2019

Economic Justice

Abstract and Keywords

Social work often refers to economic justice but rarely considers what economic justice truly entails. This article specifies a number of areas that comprise economic justice issues and agendas. It also provides examples of how these issues are being advocated and many of the organizations that are involved in these campaigns. In addition, the text discusses the rationale for social work and social workers to be knowledgeable of and involved with economic justice initiatives. Six realms of economic justice are discussed, including inequality, workplace rights, living wage levels and minimum wages, immigrant rights in the workplace, community-labor partnerships, and social programs that support working families and individuals.

Keywords: Economic justice, unions, labor, inequality, community-labor coalitions, labor-community coalitions, living wage campaigns, minimum wage, immigrant workers, low wage workers

Economic Justice

Economic justice is a concept that is often mentioned in social work literature or discourse but rarely is spelled out in a detailed manner as a societal goal that we should strive to achieve. Definitions or explanations of economic justice are often either imprecise or abstract theoretical discussions. As economist Robin Hahnel (2005) asserts:

Although political economists are passionate about economic justice, most of us have a difficult time saying clearly exactly what it is. Instead, most radical economists find themselves in the position in which the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart found himself when required to make a ruling on pornography. In his immortal words, “I shall not today attempt further to define pornography, but I know it when I see it.” Few radical economists can define economic justice, but almost all believe they know economic injustice when they see it


Following this line of thought, identifying economic injustice is generally thought of as determining violations of rights in the economic spheres of human existence and the inability of those in need to share in economic growth. This article’s purpose is not to construct one overarching definition of economic justice, but rather to identify areas of concern, with particular attention to the context in the United States (U.S.), that social work can address in order to achieve a more economically just society, and thus a fairer and more socially just society. However, several aspects of economic justice are helpful to know in order to begin the discussion: a concern over the distribution of income, wealth, and opportunity; a concern over both individual and group rights; and a recognition of the relation of racial justice and gender justice to economic justice.

Social Work’s Encouragement to Engage in Economic Justice

There are a number of relevant statements that empower social workers to tackle issues of economic injustice. For example, in the United States, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics (2008) under Section 6, “Social Workers’ Ethical Responsibilities to the Broader Society,” specifies in Section 6.01, “Social workers should advocate for living conditions conducive to the fulfillment of basic human needs and should promote social, economic, political, and cultural values and institutions that are compatible with the realization of social justice” (italics added). The 2015 Education and Policy Accreditation Standards of the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), in its opening paragraph on the Purpose of Social Work Education, states:

The purpose of the social work profession is to promote human and community well-being. Guided by a person-in-environment framework, a global perspective, respect for human diversity, and knowledge based on scientific inquiry, the purpose of social work is actualized through its quest for social and economic justice, the prevention of conditions that limit human rights, the elimination of poverty, and the enhancement of the quality of life for all persons, locally and globally

(CSWE, 2015, p. 5; italics added).

Moreover, these accreditation standards use the term economic justice four additional times: twice within the “Educational Policy” section on Competencies; once in “Educational Policy 1.0 on Mission and Goals on Values”; and once in “Educational Policy 2.0 on Generalist Practice.”

In the Global Definition of Social Work of the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW), from the section on “Mandates for Social Work,” comes the following: “Social change initiatives recognize the place of human agency in advancing human rights and economic, environmental, and social justice” (IASSW website, A joint report issued by the IASSW, the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW), and the International Council on Social Welfare (ICSW) (2012) articulated a global agenda for social work with four priority areas, and first on the list was “promoting social and economic equalities” (p. 3).

Finally, an influential document with great relevance for social work is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). As social work increasingly identifies itself as a human rights profession, the UDHR is a critical reference point and is often referred to within social work education and discourse. In relation to economic justice, Articles 22 through 25 of the UDHR state:

Article 22

Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

Article 23

  1. 1. Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work, and to protection against unemployment.

  2. 2. Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

  3. 3. Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

  4. 4. Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Article 24

Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 25

  1. 1. Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age, or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

  2. 2. Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

With these statements and documents providing rationales and guidance, there is every opportunity for social work to engage deliberately with issues of economic justice. The nature of these issues is where we turn next.

Defining the Realms of Economic Justice

There are several interrelated areas that offer a basis for understanding economic justice and injustice. The interrelationships must be underscored in order to fully grasp the basis for social work engagement with these issues and demonstrate the intersectionality of issues of race, class, and gender in matters of economic justice.

First discussed here are a set of issues related to inequality within a society: income distribution, wealth distribution, and their interplay with racial and gender inequalities. Another related issue is the extent of poverty within a society and whether it is growing or shrinking, as well as which groups in society are disparately affected by poverty. The ways in which poverty is measured or assessed are also of interest because many antipoverty programs are means tested and therefore how poverty is measured is an important factor.

A second set of issues has to do with rights in the economic sphere of work. People’s rights in the workplace are relevant here. A fundamental issue is the right to organize into unions: that is, how employer practices impede this right, how legal and illegal procedures impede the process of organizing, the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of sanctions for violating workers’ right to organize, and other rights on the job all come into play. For social workers, the benefits of unionization have been shown to be beneficial in various instances for upholding professional standards and autonomy (Alexander, 1980, Rosenberg & Rosenberg, 2006). The decline in the percentage of the American workforce that is organized into unions is also of concern. In addition, an entirely new realm of organizing revolving work standards, such as the right to overtime pay, protections from wage theft, safety and health on the job, paid sick leave and paid family leave, and related issues, comprises a significant part of the economic justice agenda.

A third realm involves wage levels and attempts to halt the “race to the bottom” that sinks American wages and economic opportunity for many inside and outside the workforce. Thus, issues such as raising the minimum wage; equalizing the minimum wage for tipped workers so it is comparable to that of other workers; defining a living wage standard that is connected to local, state, and, in some cases, institutional hiring and contracting practices; and establishing economic development benefits (tax abatements and tax-fixing agreements) are all within an economic justice agenda. Several unions and various community organizations within the United States have raised the idea of leveeing fees on low-wage employers who shift the burden of the low wages that they pay onto public programs that augment the incomes of their workers, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Other labor organizations work on areas such as scheduling and ensuring that workers get sufficient hours in their schedules to make enough money to maintain their households.

The fourth topic that is relevant to this discussion is immigrant worker rights in the workforce. Organizations known as worker centers serve immigrants by negotiating their legal status, developing a sense of solidarity, learning about their rights, taking action against unscrupulous employers, and providing some social services such as English-language classes. The hyperexploitation of immigrant workers is related to issues of unionization, wage theft, and work standards, but it uniquely affects this group of vulnerable workers. These issues feed into the agenda of many immigrant rights organizations and have spawned local and national campaigns.

A fifth important realm is the development of community-labor partnerships and alliances with multifaceted impacts. These coalitions may focus on one specific employer (e.g., a big-box store) or may affect state and local development policies, wage laws, and public benefit programs, as well as local and state politics. Recognizing the need to go beyond their own self-interest in developing such coalitions in order to preserve labor rights, unions and labor federations have been reaching out to community organizations for several decades in order to create new power constellations in which both labor and community demands can be articulated and campaigns around these issues can be organized. Reciprocity in labor-community relationships involves incorporating community issues into labor campaigns and issues. These developments implicitly recognize the intersecting needs of local communities with workers’ rights and wages in the workplace in order to improve living standards and conditions in communities across the country.

Finally, a sixth realm of economic justice involves the creation and/or maintenance of social programs that provide assistance to unemployed, underemployed, and never-employed people. With an ever-growing, precarious workforce (i.e., people who cannot find full-time, permanent employment, as well as people who must resort to working several part-time jobs due to unavailability of full-time employment, or those who can find only part-time or temporary work), the need for a stronger social safety net is all the more imperative. This set of issues ranges from effective education and training programs to “ban the box” initiatives that enable formerly incarcerated individuals to find employment, among other measures. In addition, maintaining unemployment insurance, SNAP, workers’ compensation for those with disabilities, and other public benefits fall into this realm.

The entire set of issues enumerated here, and many others, confront people not only in their workplaces, but also in their communities and their home lives. Lack of economic justice and economic security contributes to personal and social stress that may be expressed in the micro-arena through domestic violence, substance abuse, and family stress. In addition, in the mezzo- and macro-arenas, the lack of work and income destabilizes communities, leading to tax base erosion and curtailing of public services, as well as higher rates of crime and abandonment. For example, if a large employer in a community moves its operations to another part of the United States or somewhere else in the world, that municipality experiences the loss of local taxes, which may result in erosion of its fiscal health. The fate of those workers, individually and collectively, has consequences in communities where this takes place. Moreover, when residents in low-income communities within large metropolitan areas do not share in the economic growth and development of the larger region, this is a matter of concern for those involved in economic justice struggles. The next sections will consider these realms more deeply.

Examining These Realms of Economic Justice and Injustice

Inequality and Poverty

The United States is experiencing unprecedented economic inequality, particularly after the 2008 Great Recession, but this is also reflected in trends that have developed over several decades. This coincides with the recognition of what is termed neoliberalism; that is, an attack on the welfare state, the primacy of free markets on a global scale, the curtailing of regulation, and the global quest for profits at the expense of labor (for a notable study on social work and neoliberalism, see Sewpaul & Hölscher, 2004). One measure of inequality is the Gini coefficient, which ranges from 0, where 0 indicates total equality of incomes in society, to 1, in which all income is held by one person in that society.

A report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, 2012, p. 22) concerning economic conditions within the United States found that in 2008, “Income inequality in the United States has continuously increased over the last four decades … and the Gini coefficient for disposable income is the fourth highest in the OECD.” There are 35 developed member-nations within the OECD, and income inequality in the United States is exceeded only by Turkey, Mexico, and Chile.

In more recent data, as of 2012, the Gini coefficient within the United States was third among all OECD countries, at .38, with only Turkey (Gini coefficient of .40) and Mexico (Gini coefficient of .45) ahead of the United States in terms of inequality (OECD website). The same report showed that Denmark had the least inequality in 2012, with a Gini coefficient of .25. Also, within this data source, Canada’s Gini coefficient for 2012 was not available, but in 2011, it was .32.

Wealth Concentration

Inequality has reached epic proportions in the United States. Researchers Chuck Collins and Josh Hoxie (2015, p. 4) of the Institute for Policy Studies, in their report on concentration of wealth, noted the following:

  • America’s 20 wealthiest people—a group that could fit comfortably in one single Gulfstream G650 luxury jet—now own more wealth than the bottom half of the American population combined, a total of 152 million people in 57 million households.

  • The Forbes 400 now own about as much wealth as the nation’s entire African-American population—plus more than a third of the Latino population—combined.

  • The median American family has a net worth of $81,000. The Forbes 400 own more wealth than 36 million of these typical American families. That’s as many households in the United States that own cats.

Moreover, wages have not kept up with productivity in the United States. While productivity has grown more than two and one-half times between 1947 and 2013, wages have grown by only just under one and one-half times in the same period (Leopold, 2015). If wages had kept up with productivity, according to Leopold, what was a median wage of U.S. workers of $469 in 1947 would have been $1,249 in 2013, but instead the median wage in 2013 was $686 (Leopold, 2015, p. 23). Instead, according to Saez and Zucman (2016, pp. 520, 523),

US wealth concentration is currently high by international standards and has considerably increased in recent decades. By our estimates, the share of wealth owned by the top 1% families has regularly grown since the late 1970s and reaches 42% in 2012. Most of this increase is driven by the top 0.1%, whose wealth share has grown from 7% of in 1978 to 22% in 2012, a level comparable to that of the early 20th century

(p. 520).

… The key driver of the rapid increase in wealth at the top is the upsurge of top incomes. Income inequality has a snowballing effect on the wealth distribution. Top incomes are being saved at high rates, pushing wealth concentration up; in turn, rising wealth inequality leads to rising capital income concentration, which contributes to further increasing top income and wealth share.

… (O)ur results show that the bottom 90% wealth share gradually increased from 20% in the 1920s to a high of 35% in the mid-1980s. But in a sharp reversal of past trends, the bottom 90% wealth share has fallen since then, to about 23% in 2012

(p. 523).

Racial Economic Inequality

Within the United States, the enormous income and wealth gaps between whites and nonwhites are other sources of economic and racial injustice. There are many indications of this imbalance. For example, the website of the Institute for Policy Studies allows users to ascertain data on inequality based on a number of variables. According to their estimates, in 2013, the median household income for non-Hispanic white Americans was $55,800, while for nonwhites, it was $33,600. More profoundly, median net worth, which includes financial assets and nonfinancial assets (housing and other property), was an astounding $142,000 for non-Hispanic white households as opposed to $18,100 for nonwhite households (Institute for Policy Studies, n.d.) (

This has come to be known as the “racial wealth gap,” and it has been analyzed by a number of other authors and organizations. Researchers at the Pew Research Center issued a report in 2014 that analyzed Federal Reserve data and revealed that the median net household of non-Hispanic whites in 2013 was 13 times greater than Blacks, and for non-Hispanic whites, it was ten times greater than Hispanics (Kochhar & Fry, 2014).

Poverty and Its Measurement

The level and extent of poverty in the United States are areas of concern for social workers. Child poverty is of paramount concern. For the year 2014, the Census Bureau’s measures of poverty (the poverty threshold, or the amount of money under which a person or persons are deemed to be living below the poverty level) are as follows: for one person, $12,071; for a two-person household, $15,379; and for a three-person household, $18,850. Further, as the number in the household increases, the threshold also increases (U.S. Census Bureau, n.d.). According to DeNavas-Walt and Proctor (2015), in 2014, the poverty rate in the United States was 14.8%, or some 46.7 million people. The child poverty rate (for those under 18 years old) was 21.1% for the same time period, or more than one in five children. The poverty rate for non-Hispanic whites was 10.1%, while for Blacks, it was 26.2%; for Hispanics (of any race), it was 23.6%; and for Asians, it was 12.0%. Poverty can be devastating for anyone, but it has a disproportionate impact among people of color in the United States.

The manner in which poverty is measured is considered problematic and outdated by many researchers and analysts. In one of many examples, Rossi and Curtis (2013) discuss the inadequacy of the continued use of the federal poverty measure. They note that the poverty level was determined in the 1960s by using an “economy” food budget (a minimally adequate weekly supply of food) and multiplying it by 3, with the assumption that food costs would be one-third of a family budget and clothes and shelter would take up most of the remaining two-thirds. This figure is indexed each year by the rise in the Consumer Price Index. However, as critics point out, since the 1960s, there have been large increases in housing costs, medical costs, childcare costs, and other items that command more of a family’s income. Thus, if the poverty level is used to calculate eligibility for various means-tested programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid, or others, the threshold remains low in relation to the actual costs of goods and services in the contemporary economy, even when multiples of the poverty level are used (such as 125% or 150%). For a family whose income is just $100 above the poverty level or even a multiple (e.g., 125% or 150%), they are living in poverty for all intents and purposes, but they may be denied benefits or services that they truly need. More will be discussed on issues of wage levels later in this article, but for now, note that the notion of redefining poverty measurements continues to be important.

Rights at Work

The extent of unionization is one measure of the collective power that workers and their unions have in the economic system. Within the United States, unionization of the entire workforce peaked in the mid-1950s, at approximately 33% to 34%, and has declined precipitously ever since. As of 2015, just over 11% of the workforce is unionized (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016). The most highly unionized sector in this period is the public sector, with some 35% of public-sector workers represented by unions. However, with concerted efforts in some states to curtail the collective bargaining rights for the public-sector state (notably in midwestern states such as Wisconsin) and lay off public employees, there has been shrinkage in public-sector unionization as well.

The process of organizing workers into unions is cumbersome, and some employers employ numerous tactics and strategies to minimize union success. “Union avoidance strategies” are invoked by employers before and during organizing drives, and, although workers are deemed to have the right to organize under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935, an entire industry of union avoidance—“union-busting”—is acting in full force to hamper the process. Scholars of organizing have demonstrated that intimidation, delaying tactics, and weak sanctions for employers who violate the legal protections of workers all serve to make following the NLRA process of conducting yes/no elections on whether workers want a union in their workplace extremely difficult for unions to win (Norwood, 2002; Lafer, 2007; Human Rights Watch, 2000; Levitt with Conrow, 1993). Moreover, even if workers vote yes to having a union, employers often make it difficult (if not impossible) to negotiate a first contract through collective bargaining. Still, despite these obstacles, unions still attempt to organize workers; in 2015, there was growth in the actual number of union workers of 219,000 members, as well as growth in those represented by unions of 289,000 (the difference of these two figures is attributable to individuals who work in organized workplaces and are covered by union contracts, but who choose not to be members of unions) (BLS, 2016).

Table 1 demonstrates the difference in pay (in labor’s vocabulary, the “union difference”) between unionized and nonunion workers of various demographic groups as of 2015. Table 2 demonstrates the pay differences among workers in some of the human service sectors. For almost all workers, but particularly lower-wage workers, the union differences imply vastly different capacities to support a family. Benefits and other employment-related practices also vary dramatically based on union representation or its lack.

Table 1. Median Weekly Earnings of Full-Time Wage and Salary Workers by Union Affiliation and Selected Characteristics (Full-Time Workers)


Median Weekly Earnings (16 years and over)

Union Members

Nonunion workers

All workers




White men




White women




Black or African American men




Black or African American women




Hispanic or Latino ethnicity, men




Hispanic or Latino ethnicity, women




Asian men




Asian women




Source: BLS, Union Members in 2015, January 2016.

Table 2. Median Weekly Earnings of Full-Time Wage and Salary Workers by Union Affiliation, Occupation, and Industry

All Workers

Union Members

Nonunion Workers

Service occupations




Healthcare support occupations




Protective service occupations




Food preparation and serving-related occupations




Building and grounds, cleaning, and maintenance occupations




Personal care and service occupations




Sales and office occupations




Education and health services




Educational services




Health care and social assistance




Leisure and hospitality




Accommodation and food services




Public sector—state




Public sector—local




Source: BLS, Union Members in 2015, January 2016.

Newer Types of Labor Organizing

Given the difficulties in the union organizing process, as well as the fact that several types of workers were exempt from protections under the NLRA, some groups of workers have taken up different types of campaigns to assert workers’ rights. During the campaign for the U.S. Congress to enact the NLRA, compromises with southern Democrats for their support resulted in exemptions for domestic workers and agricultural workers from the act’s protections. The fact that a large proportion of these workers were African American was a factor in maintaining the racial hierarchy of the Jim Crow era.

Currently, among these groups of workers (nationally) and other workers who are in sectors that are difficult to organize along traditional NLRA processes, new forms of advocacy are taking place that invoke the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which specifies wages, hours, and other concerns that individual workers are entitled to, regardless of union status. These include the 40-hour workweek, overtime for hours worked after 40 hours, the right to have breaks, the rights to be paid for all hours worked, and other concerns. Workers in such sectors as restaurants, domestic work, and agricultural work, as well as tipped workers, day laborers, workfare workers, formerly incarcerated workers, and taxi drivers are among the people who came together in a coalition, the United Workers Congress, to develop strategies and find support for the issues faced in their respective industries. Their former website specified the purpose of this group as the following:

The United Workers Congress is a strategic alliance of workers that are either by law or by practice excluded from the right to organize in the United States. We are national networks that represent a base of workers, and also regional networks and individual organizations in industries where there is no national network. Every network represents a different industry, sector, or kind of work. We recognize that not every sector is nationally represented and we will strive to increase representation in those sectors.

The organizations that form our membership are deeply rooted within constituencies that are grounded in the community and workforce. We are each confronting and organizing strategic responses to the critical demands of contemporary society and are creating new approaches to building a national grassroots movement connected to international social change movements.

Although this specific coalition no longer exists, the organizations who were involved continue to pursue their respective issues and various members work jointly on issues when feasible. Workers in these organizations have won lawsuits to recover lost wages or overtime pay and fight other forms of wage theft. One member group, the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), has developed campaigns for Domestic Workers Bills of Rights in several states, which would stipulate standards that employers of these workers, who are mostly women and/or immigrants, must meet. There are affiliates in numerous states as well, whose activities include establishing help lines and conducting training for domestic workers. Their national executive director, Ai-jen Poo, was a 2014 MacArthur fellow, and she has gained national and international recognition for her efforts and the efforts of the NDWA.

Another national organization, Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC United), with chapters across the country, is involved in issues of restaurant workers. Their agenda includes raising tipped minimum wages (the One Fair Wage campaign), developing grievance procedures, advocating for raises, and developing sexual harassment policies, paid sick days, job security, and antidiscrimination policies in restaurants (ROC United, n.d.). They emphasize the development of career opportunities for restaurant workers and urge “high-road” strategies for restaurant owners. One of ROC United’s national leaders, cofounder Saru Jayaraman, has also provided important accounts of the restaurant industry in her books, Behind the Kitchen Door (2014) and Forked: A New Standard for American Dining (2016).

These two groups and the other organizations pursuing their respective agendas all have invigorated the labor movement. Readers may wish to consult the websites and materials of these individual groups.

Wage Levels

Issues of wages are played out at the collective bargaining table and in public policy debates locally and on the state and federal levels (as well as in international contexts). In the public policy arena, a prominent issue is that of the minimum wage. A federal minimum wage exists that covers the entire United States, but states can have higher minimum wage rates. In addition, tipped workers, most notably in the restaurant industry, have a minimum wage substantially below the minimum wage for other workers. The inadequacy of minimum wage levels has led to (a) campaigns to raise the minimum wage; (b) movements to use alternative determinants of wages, such as the living wage; (c) development of what is known as a self-sufficiency standard or wage to reflect the true amount of wages needed to sustain people and families more accurately; (d) campaigns to exact fees on employers whose pay scales are so low that employees turn to public benefits to survive.

The Minimum Wage and the Tipped Workers Minimum Wage

A federal minimum wage was established in 1938 under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The 1938 rate was $.25 per hour, and it has been raised gradually over time to the current level of $7.25 as of 2016. It was initially limited to employees engaged in interstate commerce, and over time, amendments to the act were passed to include more workers (U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division, n.d.). States can enact their own minimum wage laws. A total of 29 states and the District of Columbia have minimum wage rates higher than the federal minimum, and 14 states use the federal rate. Five other states have no minimum wage laws, and so the federal minimum wage applies automatically, and two states—Georgia and Colorado—have lower minimum wage rates; however, the federal rate applies to most workers in those states ( There are some groups of workers who were historically excluded from minimum wage mandates in the establishment of these protections, both on the federal level and in individual states, specifically domestic and agricultural workers. These exclusions have generated campaigns to cover these workers.

In addition, a lower minimum wage exists for tipped workers, mainly those in the restaurant industry (currently at $2.13), under the assumption that these workers will make up the difference (and sometimes even more) through tips for their service. States have the option of enacting higher minimum wage rates and tipped workers minimum wage rates, and some have. Seven states—Alaska, California, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington—mandate that tipped workers receive their state’s minimum wage. And 26 other states, plus the District of Columbia, have tipped worker minimum wages that are higher than the federal $2.13. The remainder use the $2.13 as the wage rate (

If it can be assumed that one full-time worker works 40 hours per week for 52 weeks at the federal minimum wage, that person would earn $15,080 as of early 2016. This is slightly above the poverty level for a single individual, but below the poverty rate for a two-person household with one wage-earner and a nonworking dependent (a child or an elder). Thus, across the United States, movements have sprung up in recent decades to increase the minimum wage. Given the difficulties in moving legislation to do this through the U.S. Congress, many of these campaigns have also taken place on the state level; therefore, among the 29 states with higher rates, there is a wide range of minimum wages. In addition, there are campaigns across the United States led by ROC United for “one fair wage” that would raise tipped workers’ rates to those of all other workers.

Social Movements Concerning Raising the Minimum Wage

The inadequacy of minimum wage rates has spawned movements on the city, state, and national levels to raise the minimum wage. As stated previously, 29 states have rates higher than the minimum wage, and some states are phasing in higher minimum wages over a multiyear period. In 2012, a campaign by fast-food workers and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) began what became known as the “Fight for 15,” a demand for an hourly wage of $15 and the right to unionize.

The idea of a $15 per hour minimum wage picked up considerable support, including among a presidential candidate in 2016, Bernie Sanders, as well as in state political battles in various states and localities. (Hillary Clinton supported a raise of the minimum wage to $12 and may have eventually been convinced of the higher level. The winner of the presidential campaign, Donald Trump, voiced no support for this increase.) The campaign grew nationally, encompassing periodic strikes and job actions, in combination with community support and legislative initiatives. The campaign has enjoyed several notable victories. In April 2016, Governor Jerry Brown in California signed a law to phase in an increase in California’s minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2022, and Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York signed legislation to raise New York City’s minimum wage to $15 per hour in 2018 and the city’s suburbs in 2021, and to set a $12.50 minimum wage in upstate New York (Greenhouse, 2016; Meyerson, 2016). In addition, several cities have adopted this measure, including SeaTac (a suburb of Seattle), Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Pasadena (Greenhouse, 2016).

The Living Wage Movement

The Living Wage Movement formed in the 1990s to raise issues inherent in the contracting of municipal services, as well as the granting of tax breaks to developers and the resulting creation of poverty-level, low wage jobs through these processes. Several accounts state that there are approximately 140 cities, counties, and universities in the United States (Luce, 2012) and campaigns have expanded globally into the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and elsewhere (Luce, 2005, as cited in Brooks, 2007). The specifics vary from location to location, but the thrust of these efforts is to mandate that firms that do business with cities or other entities must pay their workers a wage that is “typically well above” (Brooks, 2007) the federal minimum wage in order to provides incomes for these workers such that they are not in poverty. In many cities, there is one living wage for employers who provide health insurance and a higher level for those that do not. In addition, these rates are adjusted for inflation annually.

Recent hourly rates in 2011 for several cities, as documented by Luce (2012), are such that in Boston, it was $13.02; in Portland (Oregon), it was $9.50 for those with health care coverage or $11.26 without health coverage; and in Miami, it was $10.58 with health insurance or $11.63 without health coverage. In Hartford, Connecticut, for fiscal year 2016, the rate was $13.99 for those with health insurance, and without health coverage, the rate was $22.21 (City of Hartford, n.d.).

These campaigns are opposed vigorously by business interests in localities and thus, the local political arena is often the site for heated campaigns. Some living wage issues are voted on by local city councils or county boards, while others are brought to local referendums. There are losses, as well as wins (Brooks, 2007). Coverage varies according to which specific groups of workers are covered, so the impacts vary. However, as Luce (2012, p. 19) notes, the “living wage can have a large impact on workers who receive the wage.”

Given the limited number of workers subject to living wage ordinances, the backers of such ordinances also tend to support raising the minimum wage on the federal and state levels, support unionization campaigns, support crafting community benefits agreements for development projects (more on this later in this article), and build networks and coalitions that engage in economic justice issues (Luce, 2012; Brooks, 2007). Moreover, this debate has been a foundation for the more recent set of movements and public discourse surrounding wages and inequality.

Self-Sufficiency Standards (SSS)

Social work professor Diana Pearce is widely known for developing a measure of economic self-sufficiency that has become known as the Self-Sufficiency Standard (SSS). Synthesizing several pieces of work by Pearce and Brooks, Rossi and Curtis (2013) define the SSS as

… the amount of income necessary to meet basic needs (including paying taxes) in the regular “marketplace without public subsidies … or private or informal subsidies” (Brooks & Pearce, 2000, p. 2). This standard is an attempt to calculate an adequate, decent wage for a family, and assumes affordable, standard housing, but it does not include assets such as a vehicle or savings/retirement accounts

(Pearce and Brooks, 2003, p. 122).

Such SSS measures have been developed for specific states, and broken down by regions within these states, so that regional variations in housing costs and other expenses can be factored in. In addition, the SSS varies by family size and composition so that expenses such as child care for small children or changes in the food needs as children reach teenage years can be calculated. For example, in Connecticut, the 2015 SSS for a household of one adult and one preschooler varies from a high of $70,000 in lower Fairfield County (an area with high housing costs) to just under $50,000 in the rural northeast corner of Connecticut, where housing and other expenses are much less (Pearce, 2015).

A similar calculator of true living costs has been developed by Dr. Amy Glasmeier of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), known as the Living Wage Calculator. Not to be confused with the Living Wage movement discussed previously, this calculator provides similar information to the SSS based on location and family size.

The SSS is not necessarily utilized by social welfare programs in determining levels of benefits. The reality of the cost of living at a modest level is not a benchmark in programs such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). However, when these standards have been developed in various states, they provide rationales for crafting more realistic programs to assist families and individuals. SSSs have been cited by advocates for low-wage workers and women’s advocacy groups, who argue that they point out the true unmet needs of many in the United States.

Low-Wage Employer Fees and Mandates

Low-wage employers such as big-box stores, fast food chains, and others often pay wages that are so low and provide so few meaningful benefits that employees must turn to public benefits to survive and support their families. Low-wage workers utilize SNAP, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Programs (CHIP), and other public benefits. We often speak of these employees as the “working poor,” comprised of working adults, often with dependents and needing to hold more than one low-wage job to survive.

Researchers at the University of California (UC) Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education issued a report in 2015 (Jacobs, Perry, & MacGillvary, 2015, that documented the costs to the public of business models that urged (or otherwise encouraged) their workers to seek public assistance. Their findings demonstrated that working families participating in four assistance programs—SNAP, ETIC, TANF, and Medicaid/CHIP—between 2009 and 2011 accounted nationally for 36% of SNAP participants, 74% of EITC participants, 32% of TANF participants, and 61% of Medicaid/CHIP participants (Jacobs, Perry, & MacGillvary, 2015, p. 2). Over half of fast food workers (52%) participate in at least one of these programs, and 46% of childcare workers, 48% of homecare workers and 25% of part-time college faculty also participate (Jacobs, Perry, & MacGillvary, 2015, p. 3). These individuals are taxpayers themselves, so their own taxes help support the costs of their program participation. The total federal cost of these programs was $226.8 billion, and the amount covering working families amounted to $127.8 billion (Jacobs, Perry, & MacGillvary, 2015, p. 4). States also shared in some of the additional costs of these programs.

Given this reality, some advocates and unions have begun to suggest that low-wage employers be levied fees to make up for what are in essence public subsidies for their low-wage business models. In Connecticut, in both the 2015 and 2016 state legislative sessions, bills were introduced to levy such fees. Reports by Kennedy, McMillen, and Simmons (2015a, 2015b) analyzed the impact of the legislation as proposed in 2015 and demonstrated that in the revenue-strapped environment of the state’s budget, if the legislation were enacted and implemented, some $183.8 to $189.7 million in revenue would come in to state coffers, helping to ease the state of Connecticut’s revenue deficit.

In Cook County, Illinois, which includes the Chicago metropolitan area, legislation known as the Responsible Business Act was introduced in October 2015. The proposed law would impose on corporations with more than 750 Cook County workers who pay below living wages a “$750 fee for each dollar paid below the hourly living wage per employee” (Bicz, 2016), and the funds would go toward social services for these individuals provided by the county. The living wage in Cook County at the time of the bill’s introduction was $14.57 per hour without benefits and $11.66 per hour with benefits. Bicz (2016) noted that if 100 workers earned $13.57 per hour ($1 per hour below the living wage), the employer would either have to pay the fee of $75,000 or give the employees a $1 raise. Researchers at the University of Illinois-Chicago Center for Urban Economic Development (2015) noted that if the law were enacted, potential results could include coverage of over 117,000 workers, the raising of close to $581 million in revenue, a potential of over 16,000 workers receiving a minimum wage of $15 per hour, and several other impacts.

Neither of these two proposals has yet been enacted. However, given the persistent revenue problems of states, counties, and municipalities in the current economic climate, it can be expected that such proposed ordinances and laws could spring up in numerous locations to recoup the costs to the public of low-wage work. What is important in the message of these campaigns is that the argument is for workers to earn higher wages, and business models that rely on the contributions of programs such as SNAP or Medicaid/CHIP to assist their employees financially end up shifting their business costs to the public.

Immigrant and Immigrant Worker Rights

Immigrant workers, particularly undocumented ones, are vulnerable in work situations. Unscrupulous employers exploit this vulnerability by engaging in wage theft, ignoring unsafe working conditions, irregular scheduling, and, as advocates for domestic workers emphasize, sexual harassment and violence. Moreover, if immigrant workers are paid extremely low wages, there can be competition with U.S. citizens for employment (albeit in low-wage jobs). Individuals face many problems connected with being undocumented, such as raids by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities, the complexities of mixed-status families, racial profiling, and more, especially draconian policy proposals and legislation by public officials and candidates for office.

Immigrant workers experience a range of abuses unimaginable to many in the United States. The garment industry, particularly in Los Angeles, is particularly noted for its exploitation and lawbreaking (Wong & Monroe, 2006; Milkman, 2000), following patterns that resemble the sweatshops of the early 20th century on the East Coast. Yet, out of the work of organizing immigrant workers, both documented and undocumented people have become important labor leaders, as detailed by Milkman and Wong (2000). Across the country, the Justice for Janitors movement, spearheaded by the SEIU, has raised the wages and improved the working conditions of thousands of janitors. There are many inspiring examples of the courage of immigrant workers who are organizing to improve their working conditions and their lives, and with this has come some new organizations to confront the myriad of problems.

One development has been the emergence of centers to assist immigrant workers in many communities in the United States. These centers began forming during the 1990s and 2000s. An extremely significant work on these centers by Janice Fine (2006) provides an in-depth analysis of their functioning. She describes that they are a mixture of advocacy organizations, community organizing, community centers, and labor organizing. They provide education on rights on the job, offer assistance on immigration issues and filing wage and hour claims, provide English classes, and serve as places where immigrant workers can develop a sense of community and solidarity. Given the multiple ethnicities, communities, and labor-market sectors in which these workers are involved, the centers vary from location to location, but in general, their geneses stem from exploitative practices of employers. It is also significant that in some cities, these centers also serve the needs of African American workers, as well as incorporate the issues of Black immigrant workers. Some centers focus on specific groups of workers, such as day laborers or garment workers, and other centers work on multiple workers’ issues. At the time that Fine wrote in the middle of the 2000s, she noted that as of 2005, there were 137 such centers (p. 3). Later, she estimated that this number had grown to 200 by 2011 (Fine, 2011). Some centers have developed cooperative relationships with unions and the AFL-CIO; others have begun to utilize regional structures of the AFL-CIO or unions to coordinate work in different cities.

Issues of economic justice for immigrant workers deal with conditions on the job, in their communities, and in their homes. Particularly for the undocumented, the inability to obtain banking accounts, driver’s licenses, and other goods and services that citizens take for granted creates many obstacles to safety and security. Predatory financial firms, including check-cashing services, also exploit these vulnerabilities. In response, immigrants and advocates have gained legislative victories in some states and localities for municipal identification cards, state-issued driver’s licenses, and other official measures that enable immigrants to access the more formal systems that require identification. In addition, an entire national campaign around granting in-state tuition and financial aid to children of immigrant parents or to children who came to the United States as infants and small children is being waged in states and at the federal level. These struggles can be considered larger human rights struggles, but they are inseparable from issues of economic justice.

Community-Labor or Labor-Community Partnerships

With the labor movement facing massive assault from corporations and their various constituencies and allies—chambers of commerce, trade associations, conservative political leaders, think tanks, and networks—it is increasingly turning to community allies for support and the development of alliances and partnerships. These alliances have both taken a number of forms and evolved over time. While earlier in the U.S. labor movement (indeed, into the mid-20th century), people’s lives in the workplace and in their communities were more organically linked, by the later decades of the 20th century, there was a separation between their lives at work and their lives in the community, both in geographic terms and in political terms (Katznelson, 1981). Moreover, given the nature of the U.S. two-party system, in which both major parties have deep corporate ties, as well as the absence of a mass left-wing party active in politics, labor has had to develop allies outside its own union members.

In the 1980s, a round of partnerships began to emerge. The nature of these partnerships took such forms as strike support coalitions with significant community participation, community support for union-organizing drives, and community and union involvement in progressive candidates’ campaigns (Brecher & Costello, 1990). These formations had an instrumental quality, such that labor reached out when it was in need. However, at the same time, communities face entrenched issues and experience deep needs that have existed for decades and continue to grow. Displacement, abandonment, disenfranchisement, entrenched patterns of racial inequality, and urban decay have all been present in many of the Rust Belt cities where labor struggles were taking place. Community forces also wanted help from labor to confront their own issues. Thus, as community-labor alliances evolved, they began to embrace a broader agenda in which there was more reciprocity and mutuality.

One obvious sphere is the political arena, where it is often the case that community groups, issue advocacy organizations, and labor can find common ground. Sometimes around candidates, other times around public policy questions, these partnerships can result in potent gains for community members, as with the living wage or raising the minimum wage movements. Other areas include coalitions that tackle urban development and its impacts, potentially negative or positive, on communities in which community benefit agreements (CBAs) are demanded. These kinds of struggles are detailed in works by David Reynolds (2004, 2002), including the authors who contributed to his 2004 volume. These partnerships coincided with a shift in leadership of the national AFL-CIO in the mid-1990s under John Sweeney to a more outward-looking federation that appreciated the need for community partners, and in the second decade of the 2000s, to a recognition of the work of groups like the Domestic Workers Alliance or immigrant workers’ centers and the invitation for these groups to affiliate with the AFL-CIO and its state and local affiliates (as well as civil rights, environmental rights, and other social movement organizations). This outreach and incorporation of other social justice organizations into the labor movement, as well as a view of the labor movement as part of a wider range of social movements, signify a recognition that the “formal” labor movement has to extend beyond the narrow interests of workers with collective bargaining agreements and become part of a larger agenda of change. Various discussions of this shift of direction, characterized as “community unionism” by Fine (2004), “social movement unionism” by Turner and Hurd (2001), and “social unionism” by Turner (2007), all point to the need for labor to reinvent itself and be involved in communities and other social justice movements.

Several specific examples of this new type of unionism that embrace community-labor partnerships include the crafting of CBAs, such as the one in Los Angeles (Feingold, 2009; LeRoy, 2009). In their examples, CBAs were crafted when the Staples Center was redeveloping and expanding in one case, and when Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) was redeveloping in another. In New Haven, Connecticut, a CBA was crafted when Yale–New Haven Hospital, affiliated with Yale University, was constructing a new cancer center (Simmons & Luce, 2009).

Sometimes these CBAs can leverage very positive impacts in communities, such as the Los Angeles examples; however, at other times, private or nonprofit entities may backpedal in their commitments, as was the case in New Haven. However, in Connecticut, there was a long-standing coalition, the Legislative Electoral Action Program (LEAP), in which labor, community, civil rights, environmental, and other organizations coalesced on supporting candidates and legislative initiatives (Simmons, 2000). These types of coalitions or alliances have been replicated in various cities across the United States, and a number of them are part of the Partnership for Working Families, which helps to share information and resources among 17 affiliates.

There are many organizations outside of labor that regularly partner with unions and labor federations on legislative and political issues and advocacy efforts. Dean and Reynolds (2009) offer an analysis and examples of creating what they describe as “regional power,” which rests on unions and other progressive forces forging coalitions, building trust, engaging politically, and creating public policies that reflect the needs of working people and the disenfranchised.

It is difficult to generalize from the myriad examples of these coalitions or partnerships that currently exist or have existed in the past. They vary widely in their agendas, their effectiveness, and their longevity. They are, however, the basis of a reconceptualization of labor’s role and form in the context of a social and economic environment that is constantly changing and which contains deep inequalities. Moreover, they are a recognition of the need for building allies and seeking common ground.

The Need for a Stronger Welfare State

Economic justice necessarily involves the existence of supports for those in society who experience economic hardship that stem from racial and gender inequalities, inability to find employment with sustainable wages, layoffs, inadequate education and training, histories of incarceration, and the many social conditions that deprive people of adequate incomes or opportunities. Public budgets that support these programs through various funding arrangements are often meager in comparison to those of other highly developed countries, particularly in Western Europe. The United States has embraced the notion of the so-called deserving versus undeserving poor since colonial times (Katz, 2013). However, given the economic dislocation that has erased many opportunities that existed for previous generations, providing a social safety net that effectively deals with poverty and economic insecurity is a precursor to the achievement of economic justice.

The welfare reform program of 1996 that created the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program reflects a shift to a more punitive form of social welfare that places the “blame” (responsibility?) for poverty onto those who suffer its effects. Thus, many advocates, as well as people with low incomes, argue for changing the work requirements, time limits, and other strictures of TANF to reflect the realities of the contemporary labor market and the difficulty in obtaining family-supporting incomes. Food and nutrition programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) have been targeted for reductions and stricter eligibility requirements at the very time when the need for such support is so great. In the 21st century, poverty rates have risen from 11.3% of the U.S. population in 2000 to 14.8% in 2014 (Statista, 2015), a time period that included the Great Recession. However, child poverty rates have risen even steeper, to over 20% in this period of time (Child Trends, 2015).

Economic justice also needs to encompass the issues confronting formerly incarcerated individuals. In many states, “ban the box” initiatives have been put forward that would eliminate the requirement that employment applications need to have these individuals confirm their arrests and sentences. Advocates argue that such information would more fairly be ascertained later in the process of getting hired rather than appearing on the application that employers see before the applicant has a chance to interview and discuss the nature of the arrest and/or conviction.

Other employment rights in the arena of family policy, such as paid family leave and paid sick leave, are areas where the United States lags far behind other countries. Several states have instituted some moderate paid sick leave and/or family leave options, but there is no national mandate for such programs. In addition, issues of scheduling have come to the fore, which include employers not providing sufficient hours for reasonable earning when it would be possible to do so, requiring employees to work overtime with no prior notice, and providing erratic scheduling for workers—all issues that particularly affect lower-wage workers.

These varied issues and the inherent assumptions and values within the array of programs that comprise the social safety net (many more than the ones that have been briefly discussed here) affect the ability to achieve measures of economic justice in contemporary times. The racial and gender dimensions of these programs reveal a disproportionate impact on low-income communities of color and on women (especially single women with dependents). Thus, the notion of economic justice must encompass a stronger social welfare state and stronger social protections for workers.


Economic justice is a multifaceted set of issues that affect individuals, families, and communities with which social work interacts. These issues are interrelated and inherently challenge corporate and neoliberal hegemony. They also do not necessarily lend themselves to conflict resolution strategies, but rather to social, political, and economic power struggles. These issues of economic justice are inseparable from organizing, contestation for power, and the philosophical question of whether we believe that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers or whether unbridled quests for profit are what govern (or should govern) our society.

Further Reading

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