Who Cares for the Poor?

It is very hard to understand why any politician would be opposed to paying people a living wage – meaning, a wage that would allow them to live with dignity as opposed to living as virtual slaves to an unfair economic system.

 

It is clear that capitalism and democracy are not one in the same thing;  apparently, if  Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson had a face-to-face conversation, they would lock horns on principle: capitalism does not pretend to want to, or to be about, providing a level playing field for all people, as democracy purports to be about.

 

But to be against helping people get paid what their work contribution is really worth seems immoral. Actually, allowing poverty, or ignoring it, seems to be immoral too, especially in such a wealthy and religious nation.  It seems like more and more, people are just a beggar’s cup away from abject poverty.

 

The growing gap between rich and poor, the shrinking of the middle class, is not just an American problem. In China, reports Rob Schmitz, “the number of people …who still live on less than two dollars a day is equal to the entire population of the United States.”  (http://www.marketplace.org/topics/world/street-eternal-happiness/celebrating-chinese-new-year-street-eternal-happiness). Ironically, the very poor sit on a street named “The Street of Eternal Happiness.” The well to do most often walk past the beggars; the sense of disdain is hardly unnoticeable.

 

There is nothing “happy,” though, about being poor. There is nothing “happy” about having to choose between food and medicine, or between diapers or milk for the baby who needs the diaper. Many families cannot afford diapers; hence in some places diaper banks have been created. Many elderly do not have enough to eat. And many adults are working their buns off with hardly anything to show for it except extreme fatigue and deepening depression.

 

There seems to be such an insensitivity to the poor. In China, Kang Xiaoguang, Professor of Regional Economics and Politics, actually said, publicly, “Although there are hundreds of millions of workers and peasants, they don’t count. You can ignore them. You can also rob and exploit them. It’s not a problem. The most important thing is to get the powerful on your side.”

 

While Xiaoguang’s statement is harsh and insensitive, it is hard to believe that he is not saying out loud what many people feel.  When President Obama said, in his 2013 State of the Union Address, that he wanted Congress to approve a hike in the minimum wage to $9.00 an hour, he apparently caught Republicans and some Democrats off-guard.  The president said, “Today, a full-time worker making the minimum wage earns $14,500 a year. Even with the tax relief we’ve put in place, a family with two kids that earns the minimum wage still lives below the poverty line. That’s wrong. That’s why, since the last time this Congress raised the minimum wage, 19 states have chosen to bump theirs even higher. Tonight, let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on earth, no one who works full time should have to live in poverty, and raise the minimum wage to $9.00 an hour.”

 

Those who are criticizing big government are not impressed with the president’s suggestion, nor are they apt to seriously consider it, and those who stay far enough from the poor to see the misery in which they live are not likely to “encourage” their state and federal lawmakers by threatening to withdraw support for them if they don’t raise the minimum wage.

 

If you do not see poverty, it is easy to minimize it and the suffering it causes.

 

Before the 2008 election, CNN anchor Lou Dobbs said, over and over, that America was losing its middle class.  He seemed not to get a lot of support, and I don’t remember what his solution was to the problem, but the fact is, Dobbs correctly called that there would be a crisis of the middle class, which has come to be.

 

The state and federal jobs which allowed so many people to reach middle class are shrinking, as are the manufacturing jobs. There are jobs available, but many of them require technical training which the vast majority of people do not have.

 

“Find a way to go to school and get some training,” those who are insensitive would say, not understanding that the working poor don’t have a penny to spend and would probably not qualify for a student loan. The working poor often cannot take a day off, or refuse to take a day off, even when they’re sick, because they cannot afford to miss a day’s wages. Their families suffer, as do they, in all areas of life.

 

Marco Rubio, who delivered the GOP rebuttal to President Obama’s speech, said, “I don’t think a minimum wage law works.” Addressing and raising the minimum wage would threaten the creation of jobs, those who oppose big government would say, but what kind of jobs? Probably more that are wont to pay workers what their work is worth.

 

It is no secret that wealth often accrues on the backs of the poor, with the poor getting little benefit. But there is something inherently wrong in that. There is something wrong with a system that allows the wealthy to make and hoard more money they can ever use, while those whose labor made them rich can barely make ends meet.

 

Professor Susan Thistlewaite, in her book, Occupy the Bible, encourages a moral and religious response to the issue of poverty. She spends a lot of time addressing the debt students are in who took out loans to go to college. Too many of them are not only struggling financially, but they are struggling emotionally as well. To not be able to find a job, or to get a job which does not pay a living wage, is demeaning. Many former students are committing suicide, she writes.

 

Thistlewaite encourages the religious of our society to read the Bible and interpret it from the perspective of those who struggle with poverty and financial hardship. The struggling don’t have trouble doing that; the wealthy would probably toss it off as Liberal dribble.

 

But there is no “dribble” in the fact that in this nation there is an oligarchy, not a democracy. There are too many people struggling to obtain the bare necessities for themselves and their families. The Republicans have criticized President Obama for the fact that more people receive food stamps than in the previous administration, but without help, how are the poor and working poor supposed to make it?  To require and expect them to work for the increase of profits for the wealthy and then to give them pittance in return …just does not seem right.

 

In fact, it seems that in doing that, the wealthy and powers that be are merely ignoring the poor.

 

The pervasiveness of poverty is not new; the society in which Jesus lived was as imbalanced economically as are the societies of China and Haiti and our own nation. But what is troubling is that it feels like it’s getting easier and easier for the wealthy to act like the poor and working poor don’t exist, that they are whiners and takers, like …they don’t matter.

 

Perhaps if nationally there could be a shift or an outpouring of programs that teach the poor how to compete in our global economy the picture could and would change. The poor don’t want to be poor; many of them are stuck and don’t know how to get out. Some would rather die than take government assistance. They don’t want a hand out. They want a way up and out of their economic misery. Poverty causes people to live in despair and depression; suicide is not all that uncommon for those who have simply given up hope of their lives ever getting better. There is a lot of domestic abuse amongst the poor, and children end up being ignored and neglected, which causes a host of social problems. It doesn’t make sense to ignore and/or ignore the poor. Poverty ends up costing money …but then, those who are investing in private prisons, the so-called Prison Industrial Complex, would not care about that because their wealth is built upon the backs of the hopeless and despairing.

 

Capitalism
Capitalism (Photo credit: Juliano Mattos)

 

You have to have eyes to see that, though, ears to hear it, and a heart to receive it. That, apparently, is what is missing in our great nation.

 

A candid observation …

 

Muttering in Times of Pain

For the past week, I have not been able to get the families of the victims of the shooting in Newtown at Sandy Hook Elementary School off my mind.

I have always said that Christmas, for the hype about the season being the “most wonderful time of the year,” is actually very depressing for a large number of people. Christmas for them represents, or makes more obvious, what is wrong or lacking in their lives. For too many, there is no family, no home, no “manger,” so to speak, for them to lay their heads or their hearts.

That is true in general, but for the families of the victims of the Newtown shootings, and for the victims of Hurricane Sandy, it is even more true. At a time where many are celebrating by giving gifts and eating way too much food, I would bet that many of the people in Newtown are forcing themselves to eat even a little, and for victims of Hurricane Sandy, left homeless by Sandy, I would assume that they don’t feel much like eating and laughing, either.

Dr. Martin Luther King talked about “redemptive suffering,” i.e., that there is value in suffering. If it does not kill us, it makes us stronger, and so if we endure the suffering, the assumption is that we come out of it better, changed, but better. That is true for the most part.

But it is not the afterward that I am thinking of. All of us have “new normals” based on painful experiences in our lives. It is the in the midst of the suffering that is the problem, the issue. There is no “quick fix.” One cannot take an Advil (or four), four times a day to ease the pain. The pain of suffering is ruthless and persistent, and it sometimes taunts the sufferer. There are lapses of the pain, when the sufferer thinks that the interminable pain is gone. But it comes back. Pain is peristaltic in nature; it ebbs and flows.  There is an arrogance about it because it knows that it will leave when it feels like it.  It is a spirit-virus, and it must run its course.

There is no remedy. We try to find one, like alcohol or drugs, or any number of other things, but those are just crutches, and not helpful crutches at that. Billie Holliday said it best in a song, “Good Morning, Heartache.”

That is what I keep thinking about as concerns those families in Newtown, and in the areas affected by Hurricane Sandy.  Heartache is greeting them as they awaken this morning, rubbing salt in their already excruciatingly painful wounds. There are probably Christmas presents for the little children killed last week that were purchased weeks ago in anticipation of happy squeals this morning, but those presents will not be opened…and in the case of the victims of the hurricane, I wonder where in the world they are even waking up this morning?

Those families are in the “moment by moment” phase of suffering; I would imagine that even breathing hurts for some of them. I know that pain. I have been there.

The families in Newtown and the hurricane victims are fresh reminders of horrible pain, but throughout 2012, many have suffered horrible losses, and this Christmas is bitter…not even bittersweet yet. I think of the parents of young Trayvon Martin…and so many other families of young children who died this year due to violence.

I am praying for those families. The one thing that I have learned to do in the midst of suffering is to mutter. I mutter scriptures that remind me of the presence of God, a God who allows evil but who does not wish for us to crumble under the pain that evil causes. I mutter. Consistently. Constantly. Words that help me not to think about the pain in my gut that is eating my spirit alive. Everyone has his or her own words that they have read or found comfort in in times past.  Powerful words become the antidote for pain. They help our spirits get the strength to push the pain from the depths of our souls out of our beings.

I doubt the parents and families of the victims of Newtown and the victims of the hurricane have the strength right now to utter anything. Right now, they are in the phase of suffering where even breathing hurts.

So, I will mutter for them today. It is my gift for them, to them. Today I will intercede for them and mutter the words that have helped me in times of excruciating spiritual and emotional pain.

Hopefully, the words sent up will allow these newly suffering people a manger on which to lay their weary and hurting heads.

Nobody gets through suffering alone. The crowds in Newtown have thinned out. The television cameras are gone. There is a loud quiet that is sitting on that little city. There is no commotion to serve as a distraction for their pain. So, I will mutter for them, because their suffering is just beginning. All of us need someone to hold us up when we want to simply stop living…

A candid observation…