Sunday, August 29, 2010
I have a dream...about living wage jobs
I've been thinking a lot about the root causes of hunger (poverty), and this is what I have to say on the topic today:
On August 5, 2007, the Rev. Dr. Sam Wells, Dean of Duke University Chapel, preached a sermon entitled, "Is there a gospel for the rich?" (http://www.chapel.duke.edu/documents/sermons/2007/070805.pdf) If I can humbly summarize his argument, I would say that his thesis was this: that money is not inherently dirty (and perhaps having money is not inherently wrong), but that being rich makes being faithful so much harder than it has to be, because rich people are often consumed with ownership over their world. They misunderstand what it means to have things, because everything belongs to, was given to people by God. Including grace. Grace is incommensurable with other things that money can buy, and being rich makes people, as Dean Well put it, "forgetful" of this fact. The gospel for the rich (especially those who are already rich and looking around at their money in disdain) is that they can and should give their money away, not by "an unthinking throwing of money at the poor", but by investing in people, in institutions governed in such a way as to not reinforce systems of oppression, in our government in the form of taxes, and in the private sector, wielding their wealth for good rather than evil.
This is a brave thesis and one I appreciate as a person of immense privilege and a member of the upper-middle class. For many people who have already accumulated massive wealth, this is a comforting message: It's not too late. And I can see why Dean Wells went the way he did with his sermon, because I think, really, the message that it's never too late is the good news for everyone, not just the rich. But I do reject the idea (moving somewhat beyond Dean Well's point) that any type of post hoc investment can serve as an acceptable moral or faithful "safety valve". The amassing and then relinquishing of large amounts of money, I would argue, is not the best, nor the correct way, to go about changing the world. I disagree with Dean Well's rejection of the idea that "there's something inherently dirty about money" and that "every cent have is taken directly out of the pockets of the poor." While I don't think that the world economy is a zero-sum equation, there are too many instances in which the rich are getting richer while the poor (who the rich know and employ) are getting poorer. This gets back to one of the ideas I posted in my last blog entry (an idea worded so poignantly by Joel Berg:) "...Americans are willing to accept that we have poverty despite wealth, but they are loathe to consider that we often have poverty because of wealth."
During a visit to see Robert Egger, founder and president of the DC Central Kitchen (www.dccentralkitchen.org), yesterday, I was struck by his idea that focus on how and how much people give away at the ends of their lives is missing the point and perpetuating the cycle of poverty. It's not about how you give your money away; it's about how you make it in the first place. Why is it admirable to give away all of your money to help the poor, who you helped place in poverty by paying less than a living wage? Why is it socially and politically acceptable to start large philanthropies to work on health issues with money gained through ownership of a business that constructed its employment opportunities in such a way as to avoid offering health care to its lowest paid workers? Where does this pattern leave the working poor between the time they work for a corporation and the time the CEO starts a foundation to benefit the poor? It seems to me that government is letting the rich borrow billions from the poor only to take the large majority of the dividends for themselves and distribute the remaining dividends among (often) different sub-populations of poor people. The return on philanthropic investment here does not even begin to make up for the cost of pulling the money together to make that investment in the first place, evidenced by the fact that we continue to have millions who live in poverty.
Yesterday was the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I have a dream speech". But as columnist Roland S. Martin wrote yesterday (http://www.cnn.com/2010/OPINION/08/27/martin.king.dream/index.html), the speech, actually entitled "Normalcy: Never Again" was not just about color but also about equality in economic opportunity. The "March on Washington" was actually the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom". In order to honor this man and the importance of the worst recession since the Great Depression, we should stop looking to charity to save the world. We should challenge the idea that we can get rich just to give everything away while maintaining a clean conscience. The rich (including me) must realize their role in upholding and, for some, running institutions that keep people from earning wages to keep them out of poverty. The gospel for the rich is not about investment in philanthropy, but about investment in workers. Today, I have a dream that my generation, my policy makers, my neighbors, the CEOs of companies who make products that I buy, would focus on encouraging prosperity by insisting that work really pays.