The Common Good

Time to Rebuild our Foundations

Sojomail - November 10, 2011


"When extreme weather hits, we hear about the property damage and insurance costs. The healthcare costs never end up on the tab." - Kim Knowlton, a senior scientist at Natural Resources Defense Council, co-author of study estimating that deaths and health problems from floods, drought, and other U.S. disasters related to climate change cost an estimated $14 billion over the last decade. (Source:Reuters)

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Hearts & Minds by Jim Wallis

Time to Rebuild our Foundations

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So let’s talk about jobs, jobs, jobs.

Here is what I thought Barack Obama should have said in his inaugural address.

My fellow Americans,
We are enduring a financial crisis that has created a great economic recession with much suffering for many, and with more to come. And there is an even deeper problem we face: For decades we have neglected the foundational infrastructures of this nation, both physical and moral. Our roads, bridges, schools, transportations systems, energy grids, and even the structures of our families and communities are all in disrepair.
So, let us use the painful reality of this economic crisis as the opportunity to rebuild America, to repair our economic and social life for our children and their children. From the renovation of our educational buildings, classrooms, and systems to the building of a new grid for a future of clean energy, to rebuilding the fundamentally important role of fatherhood in our families, we will strengthen our foundations as a nation. We are going to put America back to work with the good work that that we must now do.
It won’t be easy or quick. But, as your president, I will focus my primary energy on putting Americans back to work in constructing America’s future. And I will report to you on our progress every month.

After two years in office, President Obama has finally begun to clearly say and do that. His jobs bill, including a national infrastructure bank, is the right course now. And while it should have come much sooner and be much bigger, it is an important step in the right direction.

I believe that there is a basic human dignity inherent in work. In fact, the Bible even makes special provisions to provide jobs for those who otherwise wouldn’t have one. But, when it comes to the messy legislative process, no one can claim God’s special favor on a particular bill. It is, however, appropriate to discuss what kind of moral principles legislation should try to promote.

In St. Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, he writes, “Those unwilling to work will not get to eat." Paul goes on to warn about those who are idle and the negative effect they can have on a community. It was essential that every person work for their own well-being and for the health of the entire community.

Hard work was praised by early Christians, but so was ensuring that every person was provided for. Acts 2 says “All the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need.”

These passages could be pitted against one another. One side argues for strict capitalist principles in which the lazy starve. The other models a communal society that shares and redistributes private property. But understood properly, they actually work together.

Those who can work should work. Those who need work should be helped to find it. Those who can’t work should be provided for.  

I would argue that the first government work program was seen in ancient Israel. It was instituted by what are called “gleaning” laws. The laws required farmers not to harvest the edges of their field, and if any wheat or grain fell to the earth in the process of harvesting, it was to be left there. This allowed those who were poor or without farm land of their own to come and collect food.

These laws respected private property, but still required a portion to be set aside in a way that would allow other people to provide for themselves.

What would it look like if we applied such principles today?

I like Obama’s American Jobs Act. It is a plan that could prevent up to 280,000 teacher lay-offs and modernize 35,000 schools. It would expand high-speed Internet access to build and broaden our technological infrastructure as well as invest in our current infrastructure that is crumbling. It also would give tax incentives to businesses for hiring veterans and the long-term unemployed, provide job opportunities for low-income youth and adults, and extend unemployment insurance for those who still can’t find work. These are all good ideas.

Obama's jobs bill would help those who want to work get to work, and investing in our children’s future and basic infrastructure would pay back dividends for years to come.

That’s exactly the right direction at a time of economic crisis.

Estimates for job creation vary substantially, but some independent economists estimate the bill would create between 1.3 and 1.8 million jobs. Others at least say it would increase economic growth and forestall further recession at a still dangerous time.

The scriptures also speak to the importance of people benefitting from their own work. Three-quarters of those living under the poverty line in our country already have jobs.They just aren’t jobs that allow them to meet all of their own and their family’s needs.

People are working and yet are still going hungry.

This is why nutrition assistance programs are so important, as are work supplements such as the earned income tax credit.

While God cannot be said to support a particular piece of legislation, it is imperative that we ask how our moral values influence policy decisions and priorities. The country’s major religious traditions have significant areas of disagreement, but one area that unites them all is concern about inequality. 

A survey released this week by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that majorities in every major religious category -- as well as the religiously unaffiliated -- all believe that the country would be better off if the distribution of wealth was more equal.

Putting Americans back to work is essential to reducing poverty and addressing inequality, and it’s a top concern among people of faith in our country.

The president has put forward a plan. The Republicans have offered no alternative except for their standard mantra about cutting taxes and regulations, which independent analysts say will not create jobs in the near term. It is simply not enough to just repeat ideology at a critical time like this.

Obstructionism may work politically, but it won’t put Americans back to work. Concrete action must be taken, and we need to call for our political leaders to find common-ground solutions to create jobs.

No plan is perfect, but inaction is no longer acceptable. Work and dignity are Christian values for the common good, and it is time for both political parties to support them.

Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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