Here are the highlights of an email conversation between myself, my fiancee, Jessica, and her father (my soon-to-be father-in-law), Jerry. The topic is some issues raised by Barbara Ehrenrich's book, Nickel and Dimed, particularly on the issue of a living wage. For those unfamiliar with the term, a living wage is a wage that covers the basic cost of living in a particular community, which is significantly higher than the current federally mandated minimum wage. Here are some highlights of the conversation:
An interesting aspect of the problem, that I was unaware of, is that many poor cannot afford to save enough of their paycheck from week to week to pay a deposit or one month's rent up front to get an apartment, and end up spending far more in the long run by living in cheap motels, paying by the day or the week. If it were me, I'd probably live in my car for the weeks necessary to save up, and I'm sure some do. The author also marveled at how her coworkers never expressed any interest in demanding more pay, despite the fact that they were missing meals, living in cars, and working two and three jobs. She concludes that this is partly because these low-wage jobs (she worked as a waitress, hotel housekeeper, maid, nursing home cafeteria worker, and at Wal-Mart) are so degrading to a person's spirit that the people come to believe they are only worth $7 an hour, and partially because the companies tend to avoid any sort of negotiation-period in the hiring process.
I'm intrigued by the phrase "so degrading to a person's spirit that the people come to believe they are only worth $7 an hour." Could the reason her "coworkers never expressed any interest in demanding more pay" is they realize they goofed off in school haven't done anything in their life to make themselves more valuable to an employer? The reason "the companies tend to avoid any sort of negotiation-period in the hiring process" is because there are so many people willing to take the job who realize "they goofed off in school and haven't done anything in their life to make themselves more valuable to an employer". It is about what every farmer knows: "the law of the harvest". If you don't plant good seed, fertilize and cultivate, you aren't going to harvest much of a crop. You reap what you sow. Wasn't there a time when you truly valued personal responsibility? Farmers don't get a bumper harvest by negotiating with mother nature. We should all help people on a personal level, but don't ask companies - or government for that matter - to be the "Big Eraser" that wipes away a lifetime of sloth and unwillingness to do much to improve themselves.
I certainly believe in personal responsibility to pursue one's own advancement (though I think you are making a gross generalization to say that those who work for minimum wage "goofed off" in school. Many branches of society, it seems, do not have a status quo that assumes people will go to college. It is just not an option, or one is expected to go straight to work instead.) Still, while personal responsibility is a must for achieving certain goals in life, such as higher education or a more prestigious job, I believe it is the responsibility of a civil society to make sure that those willing to work in the least prestigious, lowest paying jobs can at least feed and shelter their families with what they earn working one full-time job. How can a person better themselves through education if they are working 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, just to have enough to eat and pay for a hotel room by-the-week? Poverty is undoubtedly a cycle, and low standards of education and work ethic in certain communities certainly play a large part in that cycle, but the condition of living chronically hand-to-mouth also prohibits the opportunities one might otherwise seize to advance themselves. What you term "a lifetime of sloth" may apply to some people, but certainly not to those working three jobs and yet still not earning enough to survive. As to your belief in personal aid, but not in more comprehensive or programmatic efforts, an allegory quoted by many activists should apply: If you see a bunch of babies floating down a river, you could pull them out one by one, but you solve the problem by going upstream and finding out how they are dropping into the river in the first place. (i.e. looking at the reason people are poor will rescue more people from poverty than helping on an individual basis.) I tend to think of it in terms of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. One cannot focus on the next higher level unless the lower, broader needs are met. For instance, people cannot focus on education or intellectual challenges unless they have sufficient food, sleep, shelter, and safety.
I think it's very easy to have these kinds of conversations and take positions that offer simple explanations for these problems when the people who are actually affected by them remain nameless, faceless abstractions. Liberals have an easy time blaming the corporate bigwig when they don't know or appreciate the tremendous responsibility executives of large corporations deal with. Conservatives have an easy time saying that poor people are lazy when they've never actually met one or walked in their shoes. (Even this statement is an abstraction, because no one in this conversation is taking such a simplistic stance) I've been fortunate enough to get to know a number of people who live an entirely different world than I do even though they reside less than 200 miles from where I grew up. The first time I went to Mountain TOP I was 13 and seeing the way some of these people lived caused me to reevaluate much of what I'd always believed. I became extremely grateful for the many advantages I'd been given. I don't have much sympathy for those who've had as many or more advantages than me and have still chosen to engage in "a lifetime of sloth", because they live quite a comfortable life in the White House. ;) Seriously, though, massive generalizations become much more difficult when these complex social problems begin to have a name and a face. Perhaps we should take a break from assigning blame to one group or another for the problem of poverty and take time to suffer with those who suffer from the cycle of intense poverty. In Matthew 25 Jesus didn't say "you saw me naked and hungry and knew exactly who to blame". He said the sheep on his right fed and clothed those they saw in need not because they were victimized by the system or it was the "right thing to do", but because those who suffer are as much of a child of God as are we, and if the tables were turned we'd sure like it if someone was willing to help us.
Regardless of where we are or how we got here as a society, the fact is that we are moving toward a borderless and "flat" world. A government, ours or anyone else's, can't long ignore the facts of the free market. It is, therefore, incumbent on individuals to give of their time, talent and money to relieve suffering. If a government or business or society pays an above-market wage, there is always a cost to be borne by someone. Ultimately, the cost - of either taxes or wages - is passed along to the consumer. If the consumer can buy something at a lower cost from a company based in a country that doesn't abide by the "civil society" standard (e.g. China, Taiwan, Philippines, India, etc.), they will do so. That leaves the company located in the "civil society" at a disadvantage; hence many of our manufacturing, technology and customer service jobs going overseas. Wal-Mart, at least while Sam Walton was alive, tried to buy American. It became increasingly difficult for them to do that and maintain "everyday low prices". They have basically abandoned the Buy American philosophy. It is not in the realm of reason that a government or "civil society" can afford to guarantee "those willing to work in the least prestigious, lowest paying jobs can at least feed and shelter their families with what they earn working one full-time job." I am working in an environment that is a microcosm of that; it is called state government. When the amount of one's pay, including annual raises and benefits, is detached from the quality and quantity of work performed, there is no incentive for anyone to do more than show up and stay out of trouble. The ultimate result of any guarantee is that performance - quality and productivity - suffers. I'm not saying it is the way things ought to be, simply that it is the way things are.
I'm with you on the way things are, Jerry, and I appreciate that it's easier to proclaim lofty ideals from my position as opposed to yours, where you deal with these concrete realities every day. I would only suggest that there may be some as-of-yet un-thought-of 'middle way' between Adam Smith-esque radical free market-ism and the neo-Marxist concept of equal pay for everyone, which has been demonstrated not to work. For people to actually count on being able to make a living wage it will, of course, take more than one piece of legislation. It will take a very serious re-thinking on the part of our society about what value "the market" (which I think is occasionally used as a smoke screen for individual greed) places on certain jobs, particularly those of CEOs, athletes, and entertainers. This rethinking will require people to actually embrace the idea that we are not individual monads, as the modernist project has told us, but that we are in fact in a symbiotic relationship with all humanity and all of God's creation. An idea which, I would suggest, is pervasive in scripture. Will this actually happen in our lifetime, let alone at any point in human history? The cynical side of me says no because the hallmark of sinful humanity is our incredible ability to construct our own reality where we are the demi-gods of our little world. That being the case, I read Matthew 25 as an explicit call from God for us to do everything we can to make this world more like the Kingdom God has promised us "is at hand".
If you're still reading by this point I thank you. Jerry, Jessica, and myself are all people of deep faith and compassion, and we have arrived at our differing viewpoints guided by our faith. Obviously, then, this is not a black-and-white issue. I'd love comments if you have any to share.