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Brothers and Breadwinners: Legislating Living Wages in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938

Ellen Mutari

Review of Social Economy, 2004, vol. 62, issue 2, 129-148

Abstract: Attention to the implicit and explicit wage theories articulated by economic actors and embedded in public policy reveals the underlying social norms and values in specific historical and industrial contexts. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA), the first federal minimum wage legislation in the United States, legitimated and institutionalized the idea that living standards and workers' needs matter in setting wages. They matter not simply in generating labor supply, but as the basis for government intervention in market mechanisms. Rather than viewing market mechanisms and government regulations dichotomously, economic actors debating the FLSA treated both market mechanisms and socially defined living standards as legitimate elements of wage-setting. Wage regulations also, by necessity, must grapple with issues of identity, that is, which workers (especially as defined by class, gender, and race - ethnicity) are deserving of particular living standards. Debates over the language in the FLSA reveal the contested nature of masculinity during the period of economic crisis in the 1930s. Advocates responded by defining a multiplicity of living wages corresponding with different living standards, as well as a multiplicity of strategies for achieving them.

Keywords: minimum wage; living wage; New Deal; gender; masculinity; economic policy (search for similar items in EconPapers)
Date: 2004
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DOI: 10.1080/00346760410001684415

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