The fight against social injustice
Thursday, February 10, 2000
By REV. WAYNE HOLCOMB
When a family, with both parents working, enters a family shelter because they could not afford to pay the rent and also repair their car, we can sigh in relief that such a shelter exists.
Most of us will also be thankful that our situations are not as close to the edge as theirs. And many of us will be prompted to reach into our pockets to contribute to the shelter or to a similar charitable program.
But a closer look at this and like situations, from a biblical standpoint, should prompt us less toward a response of charity and more toward a response of repentance.
The response of charity is a needed "Band-Aid" when circumstances go bad for someone. But if a society's way of operating regularly causes such circumstances, then the problem is really one of injustice.
By itself, charity does nothing to transform social injustice; it helps maintain it. It relieves -- but only momentarily -- both a hardship for those experiencing it, and the pang of dismay, guilt, or denial you and I
may feel when we come face to face with those who are hungry or homeless. The practice of charity can mask the real nature of the problem.
Persistent homelessness and hunger in our society and world is a mark of injustice, a mark of social or corporate sin. It is sin because it is a form of robbery, even if a socially sanctioned robbery. And it is a sin in which you and I take part, even if unknowingly, and which we endorse if we don't pursue restitution of the stolen goods. It is a sin, also, for which we are already being judged.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
The biblical picture of a just society is reflected in passages like Isaiah 65: "Never again will there be ... an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years. ... They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat."
Although the context of this passage looks toward a future time of God's action, it is incorrect to assume that the just society will come only when it is supernaturally imposed from the outside.
In Deuteronomy 15, the Israelites, on entering their promised land, are told by God, "There should be no poor among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you ... he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and be careful to follow all these commands I am giving you."
The people's faithfulness and obedience to God's commands would result in a just society where poverty would be eliminated. These commands include:
Fair economic exchanges: the use of fair weights and measures (Leviticus 19:35-36; Deuteronomy 25:13-16).
Adequate and timely payment of wages: "Do not defraud your neighbor or rob him. Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight" (Leviticus 19:13; see also Deut. 24:14-15).
The right of the poor to access the means to survive (Leviticus 19:9-10, 23:22; Deuteronomy 23:24-25; 24:19-22).
Prohibition against taking collateral necessary for a debtor to work or survive (Exodus 22:25-27; Deuteronomy 24:6, 10-13,17).
Generosity in charity when an individual or family is in need (Leviticus 25:35-38; Deuteronomy 15:7-11).
Although the faithful practice of these commands would not eliminate the need for occasional charity, it would eliminate systemic poverty.
Our American society does not measure up against these standards. A minimum wage earner has an annual income below the poverty level. And yet there is enough wealth in our society to assure workers a livable minimum wage, allowing them to pay for housing, food, and the means to survive.
Reporting on a study titled "A Decade of Executive Excess," an Aug. 30, 1999, article in The Record states, "if U.S. workers had seen their pay rise at the same 481 percent pace that ... industry captains enjoyed during the 1990s, the minimum wage would be $22.08 and not $5.15 an hour. ... The minimum wage hasn't kept pace with inflation for 30 years and hasn't increased since 1996 despite economic expansion.
The "economic expansion," though, has benefited few. The authors of "A Decade of Executive Excess" point out the gap between the incomes of executives in Fortune 500 companies and that of their workers.
In 1980, CEOs in these companies earned, on average, about 45 times what their workers made. In the late 1990s, "a big-company CEO [makes] 419 times what U.S. workers [make]."
In our society, it seems clear that the value of one person's hour of work is very different from another's. To some degree, this is how it should be. But when a double standard is used to make these decisions and when the process employed favors the stronger over the weaker, unfair "weights and measures" are being used, and injustice and oppression occur.
Increased income, for most of us, is tied to the growth of the economy. Minimum wage, on the other hand, is an arbitrary policy decision made by Congress. Even those earning wages above the minimum but well below the median income for their area are caught in a dynamic that works against them, but not against higher-income earners. That dynamic is called inflation, and it works against low-wage earners, especially, in a couple of ways.
The "booming economy" actually hurts low-wage earners. One study points out that during a 20-year period ending in 1992, the median income in New Jersey rose 73 percent, but rental costs rose 400 percent. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the fair-market rental price for a two-bedroom apartment in Bergen County is $878 a month.
Although that may make it tight for many middle-class families, 45 percent of Bergen County residents cannot afford such rent, and a person earning minimum wage would have to work 131 hours a week to pay for it.
Inflation's effect on low-wage earners is quantitatively different from its effect on higher-wage earners. It is not simply a matter of degree. For higher earners, an increase in prices means a few less choices. For the
low-wage earner, it can be a matter of survival; it could mean the loss of shelter. This quantitative difference is also reflected in how public policy manages inflation.
Last November, the Federal Reserve raised the interest rate largely because the unemployment rate, at 4.1 percent, remained below 6 percent, a minimum threshold analysts believed necessary to avoid inflation in a robust economy. In other words, zero unemployment and livable wages are not to the advantage of the country's economy.
Consequently, we have established a permanent underclass in our society, but our moral traditions and sensitivities do not allow us to own up to that fact. Instead, we convince ourselves that everyone has equal access to the American Dream, and have developed welfare programs for those "temporarily"
Many welfare programs might be unnecessary if livable wages were paid to workers. However, preferring to deny culpability in establishing an underclass, we not only create limited stop-gap programs, we make demands on those in poverty that are not only unnecessary, but counterproductive.
In New Jersey, for instance, we begin taxing incomes at a threshold below the poverty level. Thankfully, steps are in place to change this, which may free some households from the need to apply for welfare.
A just society can be created by establishing just institutions and just social and economic practices. The failure of social justice, on the other hand, is a disease that affects not only those in poverty, but all of us.
God's judgment may not come as cataclysmic events, but by simply allowing us to follow our current scenario to its conclusion.
Even now, presidential candidates are vying to articulate a vision and direction to voters, of whom only about a third went to the polls in 1998. An article in the Oct. 17 New York Times Magazine noted, "More than ever, Americans are looking out for No. 1. ... But they say they feel bad about it."
The lack of direction and causes for confusion, the breakdown of "family values" and moral decay, the drugs and crime -- these are not the causes for God's judgment; they are the effects of it. God may have given us up to pursue our own ends.
This does not need to be where it ends. Recognizing our obligation to God and each other, we can pursue justice through our actions and lifestyle in our homes, our neighborhoods, at work, or in school.
We can pursue justice through promoting public and economic policies for a livable wage and the development of affordable housing. We can pursue justice so that none among us is robbed of the gift of life, of their place in community, of a place to call home.
The Rev. Wayne Holcomb is outreach coordinator for the Interreligious Fellowship for the Homeless of Bergen County.
Copyright © 2000 Bergen Record Corp.
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