“Then the King will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, anything you did for even the least of my people here, you also did for me.’” Matthew 25:40Welcome to the new American Economy. The American middle class is in trouble. Our incomes stagnate or fall while the costs of life’s necessities continue to rise. Even for those with jobs, the promise of economic growth has failed to deliver. Income for the typical middle class household has actually fallen over the past 10 years. For the past decade, Gallup has asked Americans about their biggest financial concern. Those in the middle class have consistently said they are most worried about not earning enough money, the high cost of living, and risks such as maintaining a decent standard of living in retirement and losing their job. Sadly, Americans have also been telling pollsters, even before the start of the Great Recession, that they think their children will be worse off than they are.
If the middle class is at risk, that means the new American Economy has a growing population of at-risk families. Tens of millions of people live in poverty, although many refuse to think of themselves as “poor.” Some make daily choices as to which necessities they will have to live without. Many work part- or full-time, but on that basis, are still unable to lift their families out of poverty. Others are physically or mentally unable to work. Many lack the family, educational, and community support important for making good choices in their lives. Although those living in poverty are particularly visible in cities, their more hidden reality in suburban, small town, and rural areas can be just as painful. A greater proportion of people of color live in conditions of poverty. The poor are disproportionately women with their children. Systemic racism and sexism continue to be evident in the incidence of poverty. There is nothing generous about our national definition of poverty. In 2010 the official poverty line was a family income of just below $22,500 for a family of four, or about $100 a week. That’s the ceiling, not the average. More than 40% of poor U.S. families have incomes of less than half the poverty line. A fifth of American children live in poverty and two-fifths in low-income households – up 33% since 2000.
Here is one of the problems. And this is not partisan politics. This is just facts. Instead of addressing the needs of the desperately poor and its shrinking middle class, American economics has taken the lion’s share of our impressive Gross Domestic Product and invested in a far-reaching project of income redistribution to the rich. The share of domestic income going to the middle class has been shrinking for decades. The poorest fifth of American households have seen their after-tax income increase by 18%. The richest fifth, have seen real income increases of 65%. For the top 1%, real income went up 275%. America is now a land of economic insecurity for most, and a playground of unprecedented wealth for a small minority. We live in an unequal society where those on top can enforce their will against people who have less. Those on the bottom have little reason to believe they will get a fair shake. No wonder we sense that our politics are permeated by distrust.
What America should we strive to create? If the economic arena becomes a reigning power for us, the question arises: in what or whom shall we place our trust and hope? We can’t place our hope in the GDP. We can’t place our hope in unlimited economic growth. Neither Wall Street, nor K Street, t nor Madison Avenue have your family’s best interests on their agenda. And even though we’ve heard it before, it bears repeating: Money does not buy happiness. You may have heard the joke, “Those who say money can’t buy happiness just don’t know where to shop!” The data actually indicate that money really can’t buy happiness among the more affluent. Study after study show that income is a weak generator of well-being. Do you know what produces happiness? The answer is complicated, but one answer is: “Other people.” We flourish in settings with warm, nurturing, and rewarding interpersonal relationships. And we flourish best when we are giving, not getting.
In 1968, Robert Kennedy spoke of this. “Our Gross National Product . . . counts air pollution and cigarette advertising . . . it counts special locks for our doors and the jails for people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts . . . nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riot in our cities . . . and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet, the Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our [relationships], the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom or our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything . . . except that which makes life worthwhile.”
I suggest, as Christians, we think strongly about what Jesus said about God’s economics. That which we keep to ourselves, that which we hoard, that which we take at the expense of other’s survival, we keep from God. And what we give to the least of those among us, we give to God. Our faith in God provides a vantage point for critiquing any and every system of this world, all of which fall short of what God intends. Human impoverishment, excessive accumulation and consumerism driven by greed, gross economic exploitation. God stands in judgment of those in authority who fall short of their responsibility, and is moved with compassion to deliver the impoverished from all that oppresses them.
From the vantage point of faith, here is what I see as the vision for the New American Economy: sufficient, sustainable livelihood for all! The language comes from a study put out in 1999 by the ELCA. Their statement affirms that as people of faith, we confess that we depend on God and are interdependent with one another. Through these relationships we are nurtured, sustained, and held accountable.
- As people of faith, we confess that in Christ we realize that what human beings want is not necessarily what they need for the sake of life.
- As people of faith, we acknowledge that what is in our interest must be placed in the context of what is good for the neighbor.
- As people of faith,, we recognize that intense competitiveness can destroy relationships and work against the reconciliation and cooperation God desires among people.
- As people of faith, we affirm that God promises a world where there is enough for everyone, if only we would learn how to use and share what God has given for the sake of all.
- As people of faith, we insist that economic growth must be evaluated by its short-term, and long-term effects on the well-being of all creation and people, especially those who are poor.
Most of all, we ask the Spirit of God to expand our vision and transforms our priorities. I get restless when I see us offer less than what God intends for the world. We do not eat alone; everyone needs to eat. The multitudes present around God’s global table become our neighbors rather than competitors or strangers. Empowered by God, we continue to act, pray, and hope that through economic life there truly will be sufficient, sustainable livelihood for all.
As I was preparing for the early worship service, I found a poem by Drew Dellinger, called “hieroglyphic staircase.”
it's 3:23 in the morningWhat if God is asking those questions of us?
and I'm awake
because my great great grandchildren
won't let me sleep
my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the planet was plundered?
what did you do when the earth was unraveling?
surely you did something
when the seasons started failing?
as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying?
did you fill the streets with protest
when democracy was stolen?
what did you do
What did we do when the our economic household was being plundered?
What did we do when our democracy were unraveling?
Did we fill the streets when equality was stolen?
What will we tell our great, great grandchildren?
What did we do once we knew?
We can realize a new vision if enough of us join together to fight for it. This new dream foresees an America where the pursuit of happiness is not about more getting and spending but in the growth of human solidarity, real democracy, and devotion to the public good; an America where the benefits of economic activity are widely and equitably shared; An America where the environment is sustained for current and future generations; An America and where the virtues of simple living, community self-reliance, good fellowship, and respect for nature predominate.
The vision of a New American Economy is a vision of a Jesus economy, where no citizens or immigrants are left to fend for themselves alone and afraid. Because in this new way of life together, we don’t keep holding on to what we already have while we grab more as if our life depends on it. In this new way of life together, we don’t keep gathering and hoarding so we have to build ever-bigger attics or rent ever-larger storage units. In this story, Jesus offers us a vision of a new life together – the vision of an economy in which we hold only to give, and we gather only to share.
“Making Our Middle Class Stronger: 35 Policies to Revitalize America’s Middle Class,” http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/economy/report/2012/08/01/12034/making-our-middle-class-stronger/
“A Social Statement on Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All by the ELCA” (1999). http://www.elca.org/What-We-Believe/Social-Issues/Social-Statements/Economic-Life.aspx
America the Possible by Gustave Speth (NetGalley Edition: 2012)
Drew Dellinger, “Hieroglyphic Staircase”