The Wages of the Poor

Timothy Shay Arthur, 1858


"How much is it?" asked the lady, as she drew out her purse, and poured from it into her hand a little pile of silver coins. Before her stood a pale, poorly-dressed, weary-looking woman.

"Seventy-five cents, ma'am," was answered.

"Seventy-five cents!" the lady's voice expressed surprise. "No, no, Mary; I can't give that price for three quarters of a day's work. You did not come until after nine o'clock, remember. If you want full wages you must do full work. Sixty-two cents is all that I can give you."

"I'll have to take it, then," said the woman, rather sadly. "My little Eddy was sick, and I couldn't get away as early as I wanted to this morning; but I have worked hard all day to make up. I think I have earned it."

"No doubt of that in the world, Mary," broke out the cheerful voice of the lady's husband, who was sitting in the room; "and here's twenty-five cents extra to my wife's sixty-two. She's a prudent woman, and tries to be careful with my money; but she's over-careful tonight, it strikes me. Buy Eddy something that he will like, as you go home, and say that we sent it to him."

"Oh, thank you! thank you, sir!" exclaimed the poor working woman, a sudden light breaking over her face. "You are very kind!"

Then she retired, and husband and wife were left alone.

"That wasn't just right, Mr. Lawson," said the wife, speaking seriously.

"I know it wasn't, and therefore I corrected your error at once," replied Mr. Lawson, as coolly as if he had not really understood the meaning of his wife's remark.

"It wasn't right, I mean, for you to interfere as you did just now. What's the use of my trying to be economical if you circumvent me in this way? Mary was not entitled to full day's wages."

"I think she was," said the husband.

"How do you make that out? Let me see your calculation."

"I can make it out in several ways; can give you the figures, and prove the sum. First, then, she alleges that she worked hard all day to make up, and thinks she really earned a full day's wages. There's the sum worked out clearly. Now, as to proof of the result, I would first offer humanity; next, the woman's loss of strength in a day's hard toil, for she looked so pale and weary, that the very sight of her gave me pain; next, her poverty; for the mother of three children, who goes out to do washing and house-cleaning in order to get bread for them, must be very poor; next, a sick child, who may need medicine, or some daintier food than usual. Do you want further proof that she was entitled to receive full pay for a day's work?"

There was a change in the countenance of Mrs. Lawson, before her husband had finished these sentences.

"Perhaps you are right," she said. "These poor women do work very hard for what they get, and I often feel sorry for them. I'm glad, at least, that you gave Mary the extra quarter. Still, Mr. Lawson, we cannot afford to overpay people who work for us, if they are poor. A dime here, and a dime there, repeated over and over again, daily, will amount to a serious expense at the end of a year; and, when the quarter are not really earned, will prove, in most cases, but incentives to idleness."

"The other side of the case, my dear," answered Mr. Lawson, "and very well stated. But let us be careful in our transactions with these poor people, that we do not withhold the quarter actually due in our overly careful calculations, as to the time they may be in our service. At best, their labor is poorly compensated. They toil hard, very hard, for the small sum they ask for services rendered; and we can always better afford to give an extra dime in a week than they can afford to lose one. Let us not increase our comforts, or add to our possessions at their cost; but let them be rather objects of our care, sympathy, and protection. The Psalmist says: 'Blessed is he who considers the poor; the Lord will deliver him in time of trouble!' There is a vast deal more to gain than to lose, I take it in concessions to these poorer people."

"Mrs. Lawson sighed as her husband ceased speaking. His words brought out from her memory more than a single instance where she had paid to the extremely poor, who rendered her service for hire, less than the price demanded, under the allegation of an excessive charge for work. In her over-carefulness about what was her own, she had withheld pennies, nickels and dimes which really added nothing to her comforts, but diminished the comforts of the poor. Coming back upon her now, these memories troubled her.

"I am afraid," she remarked, looking with a sober aspect, into her husband's face, "that I have not been altogether just in these matters. But you have set me right. I will try to be more considerate and more humane in the future. I did not, really, perceive the meaning of what Mary said about having worked hard all day to make up for loss of time, nor feel the allusion to the sick child or I could not have had the heart to withhold that pittance. Our very thoughtlessness sometimes leads us into wrong."

"There is, as a general thing," remarked Mr. Lawson, "a disposition to reduce still lower than their present low rate, the wages of the extremely poor, especially the poor who earn their living among housekeepers. The seamstress, the washer-woman, and the day's-work woman all have to toil very hard for their meager wages; and the disposition is to take off the nickels and the dimes whenever there is an excuse for doing so instead of a generous concession in their favor.

"I remember an instance of this kind which happened to fall under my observation some years ago. A lady was quite indignant at what she was pleased to call an attempt at extortion on the part of a poor woman, who had been cleaning house for her, in charging her sixty-two cents a day, instead of fifty. The poor woman said that she always received sixty-two cents, and the lady declared that she never paid but fifty cents, and would not exceed that sum in the present case. And fifty cents was all she did pay. I noticed the dejection of the poor, wronged creature, as she retired from the house, and could not but feel a sense of indignation, which was in no degree lessened when I saw the lady hand the pittance she had gained by oppression, to an idle daughter, and heard her say, 'Here, Jenny, is some money I have saved. You can treat yourself to an ice cream tomorrow!'"

"Are you really in earnest?" said Mrs. Lawson, looking at her husband with a doubting air.

"What I have told you is literally true!"

"Doesn't it seem impossible?"

"It is wicked and disgraceful. But such things are of daily occurrence," replied Mr. Lawson. "There is a better way, however, and a more Christian spirit. Let us walk in this way; let us encourage this spirit. If we change the wages of the poor in anything, let it be to increase, not diminish them; for God knows that they have been reduced enough already!"