Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Nickel and Dimed

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.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Madness in March

The NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament is upon us once again, meaning that my yearly ritual of sitting on the couch, consuming high calorie snacks and beverages, and tallying up my brackets to make sure that I picked the right upsets this year. I've done this for years, but in the last few years the NCAA Tournament has taken on an additional significance unrelated to basketball.

In 2003 I was a Senior in college, and my friends and I gathered for four straight days of college basketball just as the invasion of Iraq began. We had seen on the news that tensions were mounting and that Bush was going to give the order any day. I was and remain opposed to the war, an attitude my friends did not share with me.

The bombing actually began on Thursday, the opening day of the tournament. Rather than interrupt the basketball action, every time the games went to commerical Dan Rather popped on the screen and began showing us more footage of the bombing of Baghdad. The camera had it's night vision lens on, so everything had this strange green glow to it.

My friends, no doubt encouraged by the "over 21" beverages we were consuming, cheered every time the saw in explosion. They yelled "Oh (expletive), run!" and other cries of fear in mock-Arabic accents to amuse the rest of the guys. I have to admit I laughed a little bit. I love silly voices. And although I didn't actively participate in cheering for the bombing footage, I didn't object to it either. I mostly just sat there, transfixed, because this was all so surreal.

Reflecting on this later I realized that to a bunch of fraternity guys like us, everything we saw that day was one giant video game. We spent a lot of time playing sports video games with one another, and when we got tired of those we'd put in Halo or another one of these battle simulation games were the object is to cause as much death and destruction as possible. All of us, myself included, were living in a matrix of our own making, so removed from reality where we arrived at a point where footage of bombs falling on a large city, no doubt killing more civilians than members of Saddam's regime, was entertaining to us.

None of these people had names or faces to us. We never saw the orphaned children or people with severe burns. I can't help but wonder if we in America have so entertained ourselves to death that we are unable to recognize the suffering of others. Perhaps occasionally we need to pry our overweight butts of the couch and do something to relieve the suffring in our own backyard. When those that suffer greatly begin to have names and faces, the problem is no longer some abstract, giant video game for us to laugh at. The problem involves real humans, fellow children of God who by chance of birth drew a different lot in life than we did. I pray that God will help us to wake up from our self constructed, escapist realitites and recognize not only the depth of suffering in the world, but our part in alleviating it.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


First of all, I have to say that the first Sunday of The Gathering went very well. We had 90 folks, 26 of them visitors, 9 of them first timers. We've hit the ground with good momentum, so we have to work hard to keep it going. Please keep me, the team, and this new ministry in your prayers.

Now to my musings for the day...

I get accused of being young and idealistic at times. Guilty as charged. I'm a 25 year old preacher, what do you expect? The idea of being young and idealistic is not what bugs me though. It's the implication that I'll get over it one day and be a disallusioned "real adult". I'll one day realize that things never change, so don't waste my energy trying.

The problem is that I know plenty of "real adults" who are very idealistic and still believe that things can change for the better. So I have to ask, what's the difference between them and all the burned out people? What did they do that allowed them to keep their dreams alive? I've asked these folks, and none of them has a concrete answer. Everybody's story is different. I don't believe in easy answers for anything, but there has to be some kind of common trait that carried these folks through.

I've sat with this question for about five years now, which is a long time for someone my age. I'm beginning to think that learning patience might have something to do with it. People that are young and idealistic likemyself tend to get frustrated when they realize how complex problems are and/or when they don't see change happening as quickly as they'd like.

But that's not a trait only the young and idealistic posess. Our whole society is impatient. Just look at how we give a new President 100 days in office until we plunge their approval ratings into the basement because they haven't turned the country into the utopia they promised us. We live in an instant gratification society that does not value patience.

What if those "real" adults who lost their idealism are just like the young and idealistic in that they never learned patience? It's true, things don't change as quickly as we'd like them to. Most problems are much more complex than our quick fix solutions would suggest. Maybe those people that manage to be idealistic have learned to be patient and see things through. Maybe they've learned not to pound the table so much and push on through frustration and adversity. Maybe they've learned to pick their battles and maintain their priorities. Maybe these are the people that will ultimately make the difference in the end.

I'm still tossing this idea around in my head, but I think there may be something to it. I feel like I've learned more patience in the last few years, and I know I will have to learn loads more to stay the course in the years to come.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Zero Hour

Well, The Gathering starts tomorrow. No going back now. I'm simultaniously excited and scared to death, as you might imagine. On the one hand I'm finally getting to do what I've wanted for years- leading innovative worship for a community that is not content with the status quo, and getting to preach every Sunday. On the other hand I'm very aware of how much effort has gone into all of this, how many people are personally invested in it, and how Crievewood has taken a major risk in starting this new ministry. I don't want to let any of these people down.

I suppose a healthy dose of fear is a good thing, because I'll be more likely to remember to depend on God to guide me through this rather than trusting in my own abilities (which I tend to think too highly of most of the time).

Here's the link to the site: The Gathering