Economic Security for All

On September 16, 2015, the United States Census Bureau announced that the poverty rate had not changed significantly from 2013 to 2014 and estimated that the nation’s official poverty rate in 2014 was 14.8 percent, which roughly equates to 46.7 million people currently living in poverty in the Unites States. This lack of improvement is tragic news for America’s middle class.  Here’s why:

The current federal poverty level is set at $11,770 per year for an individual. For a family of four (two adults and two children), that number only raises to $24,250 a year. Take a moment to imagine yourself living, wherever you are, on $11,770 each year. Could you do it? If you earn just 30 dollars more, or a total of $11,800 each year, that places you above the federal poverty level and you are no longer counted as living in poverty. What about those millions of invisible Americans who are above the federal poverty level, but still make below the level of what it costs to actually make ends meet? Is life any easier for them now that they are living above the federal poverty level? While they are technically not in poverty, they are still economically disenfranchised.

When we take the income earned at the federal poverty level and transcribe it into real world cost of living situations, a family of four living at (and even above) the federal poverty level tragically has no place to live in the United States. According to the Economic Policy Institute’s Family Budget Calculator, a family of four needs to bring in at least $49,114 per year in order to cover housing, food, child care (so both adults in the household can work), transportation, health care, taxes, and other necessary living expenses in the region of the United States that is most affordable for a family of four to live: Morristown, Tennessee. That is an additional $24,864 required above the federal poverty level in order for a family of four to be able to afford to live in the most affordable region of the country! And even if that family earns near the $50,000 required to live in Morristown each year, that family is still merely surviving, daily living on the brink of bankruptcy in the midst of life’s unpredictable instabilities. These people are invisible; they earn more than the federal poverty level, but less than what it actually costs to actually be able to survive and are not included in the United States Census Bureau’s report. It is not enough to simply eliminate poverty. The federal poverty level is a two-dimensional measure that represents only a level of deprivation; this measure does not reasonably capture the costly realities of what it takes for Americans to make ends meet.

No person who shows up to work every single day and works a full-time schedule should be relegated to this sort of lifestyle. Their hard work is not moving them forward. Our United States of America is better than this. The promise of our American dream seems to have been forgotten, leaving behind an invisible class consisting of millions of Americans in addition to the ones that live their lives at or below the federal poverty level. It is a moral imperative that every public servant in this country recognize that this reality is objectively wrong, full stop; it should spark a moral response among all conscientious persons, especially persons of faith.

Economic security is a human right; it is vital to living the American dream. This is an idea embedded in the Christian moral tradition as the “preferential option for the poor” and it is also a notion that is profoundly biblical and a core part of Jesus Christ’s teaching to his followers on multiple occasions.

Surviving vs. Thriving

There is a stark difference between surviving and thriving. Surviving is living paycheck-to-paycheck and barely having enough money to provide for food, clothing, shelter, utility bills, and healthcare. Surviving is living on the brink of bankruptcy in the face of life’s great uncertainties, even though a person is working a full-time job and doing everything they can to make ends meet.  Thriving is the ability for a person to earn enough money to provide for food, clothing, shelter, utility bills, and healthcare, while still having some earnings left over to be able to save or invest for when times get tough or to spend on self-development, personal enrichment, or even leisure, which is essential to living a healthy and well-balanced life. Economic security is about thriving.

Two Responses: Catholic and Protestant 

 On September 7, 2015 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released their annual Labor Day Statement. As with every year, the statement serves as both a reminder of our need to grow in solidarity with the poor and as an invitation to recommit ourselves to working for economic justice for all. The author of the statement, the Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski, Chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, warns against apathy regarding the economic plight that marks the lives of so many Americans today:

We must not resign ourselves to a ‘new normal’ with an economy that does not provide stable work at a living wage for too many men and women. The poverty rate remains painfully high. The unemployment rate has declined, yet much of that is due to people simply giving up looking for a job, not because they have found full-time work. The majority of jobs provide little in the way of sufficient wages, retirement benefits, stability, or family security, and too many families are stringing together part-time jobs to pay the bills. Opportunities for younger workers are in serious decline.

Given the woeful signs of our present economic times, it is far too easy to slip into despair and just accept that this reality is simply the way things are. But we know that we are called to a higher purpose and that all humans are created with an inherent dignity that is irrevocable. The inability for a person to thrive is an affront to that person’s dignity, as it does not allow them to realize their full God-given potential.

These ideas call to mind a similar sentiment in a recent sermon that Hillary Clinton delivered to the congregation of Foundry United Methodist Church on September 13, 2015. The lifelong Methodist sees a challenge imparted to us by the Apostle Paul in Romans 12:

It’s not enough to just use our gifts. We also have to make it possible for other people to discover and use their gifts too. The truth is there are so many people in this community, in our country, in our world, who have so much to offer  —  but never get the chance to live up to their God-given potential. Talent is universal, but opportunity is not yet.

When Americans are not thriving they are not only living up to their full God-given potential. In return, the United States is not able to live into and secure its own prosperous future.  Ensuring that opportunities are created and expanded to empower all people, regardless of their particular social location, to flourish in the life of American civil society must be at the forefront of our collective political imagination.

Toward a Shared Moral Vision

Not every American has the opportunity to go to college. Some cannot afford it, while others are just better off learning a skill or a trade. And that is okay and not to be looked down upon. Furthermore, many people today with higher education degrees still have to work a minimum wage job upon graduating from college, if they are even lucky to find a job immediately after graduation. We need an honest and open debate about the impact of raising the federal minimum wage; it is not just high schoolers that work these low-wage jobs.  We need a substantive, meaningful conversation about raising the federal minimum wage that is not politicized by the same old talking points, but one that is authentically marked by the Christian virtues of humility, mercy, charity, and compassion. We must not allow fear to impede our social and moral progress.

We also know that many low-wage jobs do not provide any paid sick leave, but human beings inevitably fall ill. At present, 80% of people who are working low-wage jobs do not have access to any paid sick days. Paid sick days provide the worker the peace of mind of not having to choose between pay or caring for themselves or their family members. Finally, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a powerful tool to boost families earnings over the poverty line. The recent expansion of the EITC at the federal level helps the increase limited family resources. For some families, their tax refund enables them to make significant progress toward economic security. If this money puts food on the table and clothes on the backs of children and pays for books for school, it is money that is surely well spent.

Now more than ever before, we need morally sound bipartisan policies that address the plight middle class Americans are suffering. This will require concessions, as both sides of the aisle will have to compromise in order to advance more closely to a common good. But we cannot begin to make strides toward achieving that common good unless and until we as a country take a stand and recognize that economic security is a human right for all.

+ CMJ

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