Monday, January 19, 2015

Escalating Inequalities (January 18, 2015)

Reading: From Where do we Go From Here by Martin Luther King
“Earlier in this century… economic status was considered the measure of the individual’s abilities and talents. In the simplistic thinking of that day the absence of worldly goods indicated a wont of industrious habits and moral fiber. WE have come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system. Now we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in a constant or frequent unemployment against their will. The poor are less often dismissed form our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent. We also know that no matter now dynamically the economy develops and expands it does not eliminate all poverty.” [Where do we go from here p. 173]

Reading: From Unemployment as a Spiritual Issue by Rev. Peter Morales
In the current strident debate about unemployment, we hear politicians and pundits argue about economic policy. The talk is about deficits and economic stimuli and tax policy.

All of this rancor obscures a more fundamental issue: We choose the kind of society in which we live. The choices we make are moral choices and, as moral choices, they are ultimately based on our central religious values.

We tend to treat changes in the economy as if they were like the weather -- natural phenomena governed by forces beyond our control. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have chosen to live in a society with high unemployment and with income distribution that is becoming medieval. A tiny percentage of Americans owns most of the wealth. Meanwhile millions of willing and able people are without work. This did not just happen. We created this situation. 

When the market crashed in 2009, I didn’t really believe it would affect me, or the people in my life. At first the only evidence that things had changed was on my quarterly statement from my 401k. But my friends who lost their jobs couldn’t get new ones. My friends and thousands of others visited a food bank for the first time in their lives. Banks began calling in loans and jacking up interest rates of those who were already in financial trouble. Young friends graduated from college at the time of a vast hiring freeze. They moved back in with their parents, and did volunteer work to have something to put on their resume in preparation for a time when hiring would begin again. I remember talking to a banker at the time and smiled knowingly when he said “these things never last longer than 6 months.” I assumed eventually things would go back to the way they had been, but they never did. 

I used to believe the adage that if you work hard and get an education you could find some financial security for yourself and your family, but since the recession, we see gaps in the system that good, hardworking people are falling into. Every morning as I listen to the news on my radio, I hear these huge numbers like “11.3 million people unemployed — 4.3 million out of work for 27 weeks or more… 7.9 million people working part-time but looking for full-time .”[ii] It’s hard to remember that every one of those millions is a person with a story, a person with inherent worth and dignity.

When they say the “middle class is shrinking”[iii] they are talking about, for example, those folks who used to work in tech jobs in Silicon Valley and now live in a tent city. Economists report that jobs are coming back, but the most recent statistics show that the jobs that are coming back are much lower paying jobs, many of them temporary or part time jobs. People who used to have jobs that could support a family, are now working at McDonalds. According to a report by the National Employment Law Project, “Fast food is driving the bulk of the job growth at the low end — the job gains there are absolutely phenomenal”.[iv] When we hear politicians and CEOs argue about pensions, each of those millions of people is someone who spent their whole life planning for a retirement knowing their pension was one source of income they could count on. And they thought this because they had a legal contract promising that it would be so. 

The numbers also show that poverty isn’t just something that happens to someone else: it’s a “live risk for huge numbers of Americans”. The author and professor Stephen Pimpare tweeted that, while the number of people consistently in poverty for the last three years is small, nearly a third of Americans experienced at least few months of poverty at some point over those years. “Insecurity is the American experience”.[v]

Several of us gathered here on Thursday to watch Robert Reich’s movie “Inequality for All” with plenty of statistics and graphs about the growing gap between rich and poor Apparently right now this gap is the largest it has been since just before the great market crash in 1928[vi]. What was true for our parents’ generation is not true for us today. We are living in a fundamentally different financial reality. I believe our UU values are going to be critically important to bring justice, equity and compassion to human relations, and affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

As Martin Luther King wrote back in 1968 “Earlier in this century… economic status was considered the measure of the individual’s abilities and talents. In the simplistic thinking of that day the absence of worldly goods indicated a wont of industrious habits and moral fiber.” Sadly those ideas that King thought were behind us are back again- I hear them on the news all the time, often coming out of the mouths of candidates for public office. Where do these attitudes come from? Sociologist Daniel Little suggests: “One piece of the puzzle seems to come down to ideology and a passionate and unquestioning faith in "the market". If you are poor in a market system, this ideology implies you've done something wrong; you aren't productive; you don't deserve a better quality of life. You are probably a drug addict, a welfare queen, a slacker”. [vii]

These ideas clash so deeply not only with our own UU ideas of the inherent dignity and worth of every person, but with ideas fundamental to most of the religious teachings of the world. We have just come through the Christmas season and remember freshly the story of Mary and Joseph unable to find a place at the Inn. The scripture says that God blessed Mary above all women [Luke 1:42] but in our Judeo Christian tradition, being blessed by God, being chosen by God does not mean you get to go to the front of the line. The God of the Judeo Christian Tradition does not bless good people with Wealth and punish bad people with poverty. If you’ve watched even the TV commercials for “Real Housewives” you can see that moral rectitude and wealth are not directly linked. But this message “wealth is a sign of a life-well-lived” is everywhere in our culture. We as people of conscience must offer a different “poor people have inherent worth and dignity. Rich people have inherent worth and dignity. Money is not a measure of worth.”

I was playing a game with my son a few months back, called Settlers of Catan, a game we had often played before. We were playing a new way we hadn’t played before, with different rules. After a few turns, I could see that every turn he got further and further ahead, and I got further behind. I was about 3 turns from losing everything, and getting frustrated and definitely not having fun. I finally just quit in a funk, seeing that there was no hope. Nick said “yes, I had read in the manual that when you play [this way] whoever goes first almost always wins.” Part of the reason that hard work and staying in school are no longer guarantees that you will be able to feed your family and have financial security is because the rules of the game have changed. For example, the Minimum wage has been getting father and further from a living wage. Our politicians tell us we can’t possibly raise the minimum wage, because industry couldn’t handle the increase in wages. But several research institutes all over the country have shown that not only do the numbers not support that theory, the numbers DO show that it is literally impossible to live on what one makes working full time at a minimum wage job without public assistance. That’s just one example of rules that aren’t fair. 

UUs all over the country are speaking out in favor of making the minimum wage a living wage. Up in Ithaca there is a program to support and certify employers who pay a living wage. I was talking to an employer who was having trouble paying their employees a living wage. They pointed out that they were wage leaders for their industry- that they paid better starting wages and had better benefits than any of their competitors. And while I honor them for being leaders, and know how hard it is to compete with other stores paying minimum wage, that number- $13.94 is what it actually takes to live on. No matter how good the employers intentions are, no matter how hard the workers work, if that number and the minimum wage are not the same, people making minimum wage are going to fall further and further behind.

Our president and other politicians point to education as the solution to this problem. I agree that it would be great if every person in America got to go to college. But even in that glorious day, we are still going to need pizza delivery guys as long as we want pizza delivered. If most of the job creation is in Fast Food, then even if every American had a college degree, we would still need the same number of works doing fast food jobs. If those jobs don’t lift people out of poverty, then the rules of the game are not fair. And as Reich said in his documentary “Losers of rigged games can become very angry.”

UUA president Peter Morales reminded us in our reading: “We tend to treat changes in the economy as if they were like the weather -- natural phenomena governed by forces beyond our control. Nothing could be further from the truth.” In fact the rules change all the time. The Citizen’s United ruling was a huge change in the rules. Now money is speech, and the 1% can speak as loud as they want. The rules can be changed to create a more even playing field too. Just this past year in the county where I live, Tompkins County, two workers at the recycling center came forward asking why, if the County called itself Living Wage Employer, the employees of the Recycling Center were not making a living wage? Was the county using outside contractors as a loophole to being truly a living wage employer? The workers and the community organized to create awareness and pressure on the County legislators, who responded with a genuine desire to do the right thing, and after many months of budget talks and negotiations, on January 6 the legislature voted that starting February 2015 all County employees, even those at the Recycling center, will be paid a Living Wage. Says County Legislator Carol Chock, who cosponsored legislation that created the Living Wage Contingency Fund: "We shouldn't even be discussing whether or when to achieve a livable wage for all workers, it is in the interests of all of us that anybody who works be able to support their own basic expenses."

No, the market is not a force like the weather. The invisible hand of the market is not like the hand of God reaching down to Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. It is your hands and my hands. This is good news and bad news. The Bad news is that with the rules we have right now, billionaires with plenty of money to fund campaigns and pay lobbyists have a louder voice in the creation of those rules. The good news is that we are the 99%. And the people of this country have come together before to influence the creation of rules that provide a more level playing field. In the years when Martin Luther King was preaching and marching, the years when he wrote the words Mike read earlier, the distance from the rich to the poor was much smaller. We the American People have seen the game played by fairer rules, and we the American People know that when we come together, as we did in the days of King, rich and poor, white and black, big Cities and small towns, our voice will be heard. 

This struggle is often portrayed as class warfare, rich against poor. But in his famous Ted Talk[viii], Venture capitalist Nick Hanauer explains that jobs and wealth can’t be created by the rich alone. We need a robust middle class to grow our economy. Study after study shows us that when inequality widens things get worse for everyone. Things as seemingly unrelated as mental illness, teen pregnancy, and school dropout rates are directly related to income inequality- not to the wealth of a country. As Robert Reich said in his documentary “The rich do better when everyone else is doing better.”[ix] This movement towards justice and compassion needs people like Billionaire Warren Buffet who spoke out against this imbalance, even though he is richer because of it. “No household making more than $1 million each year should pay a smaller share of their income in taxes than a middle class family pays. This is the Buffett Rule—a simple principle of tax fairness that asks everyone to pay their fair share”.[x] This struggle needs people like Milton Webb and Stanley McPherson, the two workers with ReCommunity Recycling who lead the fight to make Tompkins County truly a living wage employer. And this struggle surely needs the Unitarian Universalists. 

That’s why our 2014 General Assembly- delegates from UU churches around the country, like Alice and Marcia, voted to make Escalating Inequality our Congregational Study/Action Issue for the next 4 years. That means we turn the beacon of our attention to this important issue and see what our UU values call us to do. This is why our UU Pennsylvania Legislative Action Network is embarking on a RaisetheWage PA campaign. A kickoff is planned for January 27 in Harrisburg to remind legislators that hard-working Pennsylvanians cannot survive on $7.25. UUPlan is also working with grass roots partners to create a constitutional amendment to reduce the influence of money in politics, to reverse the Citizen’s United decision. I think these are two core issues that come up again as we learn more about escalating inequality- that a fair playing field must include a living wage for all, and equal access to our democratic institutions.

It’s time for those of us who believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person to stand up to the prevailing notion that if someone can’t make ends meet it is because they need to work harder. The number of hardworking Americans who can’t find jobs, or who aren’t paid a living wage for their hard work is growing. If we believe in the American dream, that if you work hard and stay in school you can provide financial security to your family, then we are going to have to fight for that dream. There was a time in this country when that dream was real- it was a time when the rules of the game meant everyone could play. But the rules have changed. To affirm and promote Justice Equity and Compassion in Human relations, we must stand up and say we want rules that are fair. Rich and poor and everyone in between must come together to create a just world for everyone.

[ix] For more information about effects of income inequality

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