quicksand

The Uphill Battle of Escaping Poverty

A few weeks ago I posted a study discussing America’s low economic mobility – that is, why so many Americans born in poverty remain in poverty, despite working hard to escape it. Last week, the New York Times published an article examining the same issue. Utilizing both objective data and subjective personal narratives, Steven Greenhouse suggests that the face of America’s low wage earner has changed. Today’s low wage earner is older and better educated then their 1970s counterparts – both indications that workers today are finding it harder and harder to escape from poverty, despite finding employment, working hard, and earning educational credentials that ought to help them move up the socio-economic ladder. Recently, the conversation about work, the dignity of work, and the ability of workers to provide a better life for themselves has come to the forefront of the national conversation because of Paul Ryan’s recent comments about a culture of non-work existing in America’s inner cities. While his comments have received a lot of criticism concerning what exactly he meant by his comments and whose culture precisely he was indicting, to me the most troubling aspect of such debates in general is that they are built on the unquestioned assumption that if you just work hard, you can lift yourself out of poverty. Indeed, as Ryan contends,...

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inequality

Income Inequality and the American Dream

I think most Americans would agree that one aspect of the quintessential American dream is the ability to make something of yourself – whoever you are, whatever your circumstances. While we don’t expect everyone to get rich, we do believe that if someone works hard they should at least be able to improve their lot in life. However, a number of recent studies about the state of our economy reveal that poorer Americans are needing to work harder and harder if they want to move out of poverty. Two recent economic studies indicate that the places in our country with the highest income distribution gap are also the places with the lowest economic mobility – that is, individuals with rich parents are more likely to be rich, and individuals with poor parents more likely to remain poor – and that America is one of the least economically mobile countries in the developed world. This is an even more troubling revelation when we consider that our national income distribution gap is steadily on the rise. Additionally, the minimum wage debate seen from a historical perspective shows that today’s lowest paid workers are often working more hours for comparatively less pay than their historical counterparts. I believe there is dignity in work; people should, if they are able, work to provide for...

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Luxury and Christian Witness

I would argue that living humbly, spending wisely, and being good stewards of our resources are in and of themselves gospel values; though I often stumble, I attempt to put these things in to practice because I believe being a faithful follower of Jesus requires it of me. However, this recent article by David Cloutier at Commonweal also examines the way in which our spending practices are tied up in our practices of witness and evangelism. Cloutier contends that renunciation adds credibility to our Christian witness, and that for too long we have attempted to push aside  simple living  as something reserved for saints and the spiritual elect. If we want to be powerful witnesses, Cloutier contends, than we must live out our Christian calling in all the aspects of our lives – including our economics. While written primarily for a Catholic audience, I believe the point that he is making applies equally to any and all who are concerned with making sure their Christian testimony is a compelling...

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The Business of Humans

Oftentimes in the dialogue about faith and economics conventional wisdom depicts the two as adversaries. The common assumption is often that increasing a company’s value is invariably opposed to behaving humanely. However, a recent article by Scott Anthony reminds us that the belief of an irreconcilable divide between human-centered business practices and profitable business practices is often unfounded. At best, focusing on increasing shareholder return works in the short term – but in the long term the quest to maximize profit ignores the customer, and a strong and loyal customer base is the foundation of any business. Anthony uses the example of railroad companies: by coming to think of themselves as railroad companies first and foremost (that is, a company whose primary business is to build railroads for the sake of building railroads), instead of remaining focused on the service they were attempting to provide to their customers, left them unprepared to face “the challenge, and the opportunities, represented by the growing airline industry.” The article by Anthony is short and to the point, and while not a particularly new line of thought, it’s an important reminder that making a business more human ought not to be considered a weakness; rather, it is a reminder that the market was made to serve man, not man to serve the market –...

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Personalizing Poverty

Oftentimes in the debate about “how to help the poor” or “how to end poverty,” one thing that is forgotten is the narrative element; that is, that “the poor” are actually people, with individual struggles, hopes, dreams, virtues and vices. Economic models can be helpful, but oftentimes they break down because it appears that people are behaving ‘irrationally’ – they make decisions that seem self-defeating, and they confound expectations and, with it, the models that created those expectations. Linda Tirado has composed an essay entitled “This is Why Poor People’s Bad Decisions Make Perfect Sense,” which speaks to just this missing element in the discourse. In it, she makes some observations about the mindset that many of the poorer members of our society can find themselves in, and explains why certain seemingly self-defeating choices look like such a reasonable option in the midst of the day to day. It’s a powerful piece, which helped to remind me that  the cause of economic justice is always ultimately the collective struggle of many living and breathing individual...

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Wal-Mart Food Drives and English Shirts

Recently, a Wal-Mart in Canton, Ohio held a food drive for its own employees. As a number of its sales associates were faced with the inability to afford a decent Thanksgiving meal, the store set up bins and tables imploring customers to donate some items on their behalf. Now, I think the knee jerk reaction here is to beat up on Wal-Mart for not paying a decent enough wage. While there is some truth in that accusation, it seems to be more of a symptom of the much larger problem. Real wages have been stagnant since the 1970s, while the price of goods and services has been steadily rising. Now, more and more workers are finding themselves in a situation where they cannot even afford the goods and services that they themselves produce and provide. It’s not an entirely new phenomenon, but it seems to be getting worse. C.S. Lewis remarked on a similar broken incident he had seen in his time; in the essay “Good Work and Good Works,” he states, “Within my lifetime in England money was (very properly) collected to buy shirts for some men who were out of work. The work they were out of was the manufacture of shirts.” In our own time, it seems we have progressed to where workers are unable to...

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