Living Wage

Explaining 'Working Poor' to my Privileged, Middle Class Children

Image via Michael Warwick/

Image via Michael Warwick/

For my privileged, perhaps overly comfortable children, something as trivial as our Internet being down constitutes a crisis. When we do our “gratitude inventory” (aka, a way to get them to reflect and pray), they rattle off things as a matter of routine that many people would only dream of.

So how do I explain something as alien and complex a state as being part of the working poor in a way they can have a at least a chance to internalize?

This was part of my goal in taking on My Jesus Project, a year-long endeavor to more deeply understand what we mean when we talk about following Jesus: to move from ignorance to empathy, which can only be achieved sometimes through direct, personal experiences.

For a month, I was assigned by one of my “Jesus Mentors” to go out of my way to walk and/or take public transportation to get places, with the intention that I would come into contact with people I might otherwise miss or overlook. As I did it, I realized my kids could benefit from it as well.

The first sign that they needed such an experience was that when I announced to them we were taking the bus and train to do our family activities one weekend, they were excited. It was a new experience for them, rather than a necessity. As for the mile-long walks to get from place to place when the transit system didn’t get us exactly where we were going — they were a little less thrilled with that. And yet, we slowed down more, spent more time talking, and while on the public systems, I noticed we looked each other in the eye a lot more, rather than all facing forward (with the kinds inevitably with their faces fixed on a screen) in the car.

My son, Mattias, who is on the high end of the autism spectrum, is a keen observer, and I suppose a natural byproduct of that is that he asks questions. A lot of questions.

“Dad,” he said, after jumping off the final leg of the bus route one day, “why were some of the people sleeping on the bus?”

No Short or Easy Struggle

FIFTY YEARS AGO, on Aug. 20, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act into law. It had already been a momentous year. The Civil Rights Act was signed in early July, ending legal segregation. Mississippi Freedom Summer was underway, with hundreds of volunteers joining in voter registration campaigns. The effort to overcome poverty was the next step toward economic empowerment.

The Act created 11 different programs, including the Job Corps, Neighborhood Youth Corps, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), and both rural and urban Community Action Programs. Collectively referred to as the “War on Poverty,” the programs were coordinated by the Office of Economic Opportunity. In 1965, Medicaid and Medicare were created to provide health insurance for people in poverty and the elderly, and Title 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act provided funding to school districts with students in poverty. It was the most comprehensive package of social legislation since the New Deal.

Results of the programs have been mixed, with the most striking gains for older Americans. According to a special report from U.S. News & World Report, “While the national poverty rate has ultimately fallen by 4 points since 1964, when the War on Poverty began, from 19.0 in 1964 to 15.0 percent in 2012, the poverty rate for people over 65 has plummeted by more than two-thirds, from 28.5 percent in 1966 to 9.1 percent in 2012.” But with the poverty rate still at 15 percent—46.5 million people in the country currently live below the poverty line—where do we go from here?

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Want to Win the War on Poverty? For the Sake of the Most Vulnerable, Let's Work Together

Created by Brandon Hook/Sojourners. Photos: Nolte Lourens/Shutterstock and bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock

The only way to win the “war on poverty” is for liberals and conservatives to make peace — for the sake of the poor. That would be the best way to mark the 50th anniversary of the war on poverty, declared by President Lyndon Johnson in his January 1964 State of the Union address. Making peace means replacing ideologies with solutions that actually solve the problems of poverty. With both Republicans and Democrats speaking out on poverty this week, and the recession slowly receding this should be an opportunity to find the focus, commitment, and strategies that could effectively reduce and ultimately eliminate the shameful facts of poverty in the world’s richest nation.

For any proposal, the basic question must be whether it helps more people and families rise out of poverty and realize their dreams. This means setting aside political self-interest and thinking beyond our too often inflexible ideologies.

Federal Workers Deserve A Living Wage

By Poco a poco

Capitol building in Washington, D.C. By Poco a poco

WASHINGTON —  “All labor has dignity.” That’s what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said 50 years ago, and it’s still as true today.

Yet too many working men and women are unable to live with dignity in a world where the fastest-growing jobs are the lowest-paying ones. Just and living wages are a moral imperative, and workers must earn enough to afford the basics for themselves and their families. That’s why we have come together to support those fighting for a living wage.

As it turns out, the largest low-wage job creator in the country isn’t Wal-Mart or McDonald’s — it’s Uncle Sam. Through federal contracts, loans, and leases, the federal government employs about 2 million low-wage workersacross the country — sewing military uniforms, cleaning the bathrooms at Washington’s Union Station, serving Big Macs at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, and hauling federal loads on trucks. Too many of these workers can’t even afford rent and food, they work without any benefits, and often are forced to rely on economic safety net programs like food stamps, Medicaid, and Section 8 housing vouchers to meet their basic needs.

Making matters worse, many of these workers are not compensated for overtime work and are actually paidbelow minimum wage. It’s illegal, but it happens. As faith leaders, we have visited with many of these workers and have asked President Obama to meet with them too.

On Scripture: The Ballad of Sour Grapes

Grapes frozen on the vine, jecka /

Grapes frozen on the vine, jecka /

If, through broader networks of power, injustice is linked, it is no less true that injustice is encountered locally in neighborhood markets, schools, churches, and even corner fast-food joints. Today it is useful to begin not with the unseen oppressive power networks in our society but with their effects on those closest to us. Just ask the single parent serving dollar ice cream at a favorite fast-food hangout if he or she would like better hourly wages.

While fast food CEOs average a daily salary of $25,000, workers at fast-food companies in New York City make only 25 percent of the money they need to survive. Single parents earning the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour are, as Jillian Berman of the Huffington Post describes, not able to survive even in America’s cheapest counties. The Wider Opportunities for Women estimates that women are 50 percent more likely than men to earn the minimum wage. Compound this with the status of single motherhood and the needs of the household intensify exponentially.

Dependent on minimum wages are children, who like any other child in the U.S., deserve access to healthy food, clothing, affordable shelter, and descent education. Within the current reconfigurations taking place in the U.S. economy, the new modes of production continue to privilege those like the CEOs of fast-food companies. Yet, as Isaiah’s ballad reminds us, these wider realities have a local impact on the everyday friend, who routinely rises every morning to try and make ends meet on meager wages. The current vineyard of the fast-food industry has not stopped producing sour grapes, which is the massive sale of cheap empty calories at the wage of $7.25 an hour.

Weaving a Hopeful Future

Solomon, a master weaver at Muya Ethiopia in Addis Ababa. Photo by Cathleen Falsani/Sojourners.

When I think of weavers, what comes to my mind are the ladies in the back of the knitting store in my Southern California hometown, the ones who hang out on weekend afternoons with their handlooms – weaving cloth shawls, blankets, or the occasional modern tapestry.

Here, weaving is, by and large, a pastime. Some would call it an art form. The ladies in the back of the knitting shop are craft weavers. We might consider them "artisans" and laud them for mastering the truly ancient craft.

In the West, machines do most of the commercial weaving, not people. In Ethiopia, and elsewhere in the developing world, handloom weaving is most often an occupation for men and one that isn't usually heralded for its artistry. Weaving isn’t a prestigious job and, by and large, those who weave are the working poor.

Working in Poverty

Employee rights activists Mary Kay Henry and Christine L. Owens write for CNN:

Tuesday marked the third anniversary of the last increase in the federal minimum wage. For the last three years, while the prices of gas and milk have risen steadily and the richest 1% have enjoyed huge tax breaks, the federal minimum wage has remained frozen at $7.25 an hour, which amounts to just $15,080 a year -- as long as you get paid for any time you take off. That's more than $7,000 below the federal poverty line for a family of four. As a result, the purchasing power of the minimum wage has slowly eroded -- in just three years, its real value has sunk to $6.77 per hour, a nearly 50-cent drop.
The Bush tax cuts, which are simply the perquisite of the moment for the 1%, allow for the richest to prosper at the expense of middle-class and low-income workers. While CEOs make millions and their corporations make billions as part of a so-called economic recovery, the majority of Americans are struggling to make ends meet. This struggle is exacerbated by the low federal minimum wage. As middle-class jobs are increasingly replaced by low-wage work, however, this is the economic reality for a growing number of Americans.
Read more of their op-ed here

Time to Raise Minimum Wage?

Over at The Atlantic, Jordan Weissmann asks whether it is time to raise the minimum wage:

One of the harshest realities of America's slow economic recovery -- and there are many -- is the fact in spite of modest job growth, pay for workers is falling. Year over year, average inflation adjusted wages have dropped by 0.6 percent for all private sector employees. They're down a full 1 percent for non-supervisors -- your retail salespeople, your shop floor factory workers, your cashiers. In other words, even as the overall employment picture has improved in fits and starts, the working poor are getting poorer. 
Read the full article here