In today’s economy, we hear a lot about the financial struggles of the country. But while we often debate issues of white-collar economics, the struggles of lower-income groups are disparaged.
It is nearly impossible for the average blue-collar worker to make a living wage to support her family. In most states, minimum wage is well below the living wage (there is a big difference) for most households.
There are serious consequences of this disparity. Workers skip meals so that their children may eat. Folks turn to loan sharks to make ends meet, which entrenches them in a spiral of debt. Families make tough choices to cut out “non-essentials” like medicine, clothing, and nutritious food.
When folks are desperate for work, they will endure any number of abuses or indignities. A friend of mine spends an hour on the bus to get to a potential job, only to arrive and find out he isn’t needed that day. Sometimes he’s able to work for a couple of hours, but then gets sent home. “Try again tomorrow.” And if he doesn’t show up for that chance, he knows he’ll lose the opportunity for later.
Or conversely, employees will be held at work hours after their shift is over, if that is what boss deems necessary. My neighbor needs to be able to be home when her kids arrive from school. But when her boss holds her late, she doesn’t dare risk losing her job by leaving at the scheduled time. And she is required to maintain open availability to be placed in a shift as is convenient for the company, but she is not told the schedule until the last minute, and so cannot arrange for child care or line up other jobs.
It also happens that workers are paid less than what they were promised. Or are given insufficient training and made to feel like fools when they don’t perform to standards. And yet, as more states put an end to collective bargaining, the wealthy receive a smaller tax burden now than they have in the last 80 years.
Take a close look at the words of Jeremiah 22:13-16. Woe to we that profit from injustice and gain economic security at the expense of others! We “who make our neighbor serve us for nothing and do not give them their wages.” Jesus himself urges that “the workers deserve their wages.”
Part of our problem is that we have a warped perspective of economic reality. Particularly since housing in the United States is largely segregated by economic standing, people look around themselves and feel that, on the whole, there is equal opportunity and prosperity for everyone.
Last year, PBS NewsHour conducted an informal survey, asking people to identify the sort of economy that exists in the United States. The findings were telling. Watch the segment below.
Also, in his ever-insightful way, Jon Stewart points out the huge economic disparities that most folks gloss over. His analysis of Warren Buffet’s crusade to close the wealth gap is both humorous and sadly revealing.
For even more insight, I recommend Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, or play this excellent interactive game to see what economic choices you would make given some stark realities about your circumstances. (If you do play, please share your thoughts about the experience in the comments section below.)
There’s obviously much more to this issue than I’m able to address in a brief blog post, but the important thing is having frank and honest conversations about the unjust situations around us. We may not be able to immediately see the inequalities in our midst due to our own privileged positions, but it won’t be long before those realities affect our own situations. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. remarked in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail“:
All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
This post originally appeared at Katelin’s blog, By Their Strange Fruit.