Unethical Wealth

Last week, the Pew Research Center released a report showing wealth has dropped for the bottom 93% of Americans, but for those with wealth levels over about $890,000, wealth has risen by an average of 28% in the last two years.  As the economy starts to recover, it’s clear who is winning and who is losing ground.

Globally, inequality between countries seems to be decreasing, although it’s increasing within countries—and overall.  And one of the biggest drivers of the growth of inequality is the growth in wealth of those with the highest incomes.

Elsewhere I’ve blogged about some of the problems with inequality in terms of social and economic outcomes. An opinion piece by Sean Reardon in the NYT shows that educational outcomes are becoming more divergent for the upper and lower classes, within the United States. While school funding is not the key issue he highlights, it’s part of the story.  In Philadelphia, public schools are looking at cuts of 25%—this translates into the removal of counselors and programs, and increasing class sizes above 30.

In the classes I teach on social change and globalization, students leave class discouraged many days. We spent one session focused on the conditions and power held by many workers involved in different commodities around the world.  We discussed coffee (John Talbot,’s Grounds for Agreement), maize (Elizabeth Fitting’s The Struggle for Maize), tomatoes (Deborah Bardnt’s Tangled Routes), and cotton (Koray Caliskan’s Market Threads). The story of the lack of power held by workers in each of these commodity trades is a consistent theme, and one that can be a struggle to engage.

Sometimes I hear students talking about ethical business or business as mission.  I’d love to see these conversations intersect more with those on issues of inequality. Many conceptions of ethical business often revolve around principles like giving back, not cheating, or refusing to actively exploit others. Yet we rarely think about the distribution of profits, or how businesses and actors are contributing (or challenging) the growing inequality in power held by people around the world.

While many are not thinking in those terms, others area, and I want to highlight one of those cases. I recently had an article published in Latin American Research Review, where I describe the ways some Central American coffee actors think about ethical business practices.  They had both a broader view of what ethical commitments mean, as well as a more integrated understanding of how issues of power and the Gospel are intertwined.

While these evangelicals gave money to their community, and volunteered time to mentoring youth, that was not the central way they practiced social responsibility. They prioritized increasing the value-added nature of work done by coffee farmers.  They did this through agricultural training, but also by challenging some current market structures and dynamics. As one of the leaders suggested, the way they demonstrated their faith was to “introduce values—Christian values, Christian ethics, transparency, and stewardship.”  For them, this meant recognizing that current business practices accepted in the coffee sector had to be challenged.

Giving to those in need may just exacerbate high power and wealth differentials. It’s no surprise that these same actors I interviewed in Central America were critical of US Christian responses to give aid to farmers instead of simply paying higher prices for a product.  For them, to be ethical meant to think about transforming the ways business worked. In my next research project, I’m gathering data to look at how the over $2.3 billion per year from U.S. religious humanitarian organizations is spent in dealing with poverty, and how common (or uncommon) this example from Central America is.  As inequality levels continue to rise, and power becomes more concentrated in the hands of a few, Christians need to be thinking more critically about what it means to engage in ethical practices in our economy.

Being Honest about Inequality

Last week, my daughter brought home a class worksheet where she had noted that Barack Obama was colorblind.  “What does that mean?” I asked her, only to be informed that it meant he thought people were equal, regardless of the color of their skin.  I told her that’s not exactly what being colorblind meant: that seeing people as equal does not mean ignoring race.  The topic then shifted to soccer and birthday parties.

Yesterday morning we had another interesting exchange before school, continuing on with this idea of people being treated equally, regardless of gender or race. She was making a statement regarding the past when people were not treated equally.

“People are still not treated equally.  Many people still treat boys better than girls, and white people better than black people.” I decided to limit some of the specifics, such as differential conviction rates, job call-backs, media portrayals, or pay inequality.

“But in North America, we treat one another equally?”

I shook my head no.

“In Illinois?” No.
In Wheaton?” No.
“On our street?” Sad laugh.

I suspect this moment was similar to those that many sociologists (and others) have had with their children, where they feel a responsibility to discuss things as they really are, despite a sort of innocence that seems to be destroyed. But we have to admit and teach our children that in the United States, people are not treated equally. Not simply in spite of the fact that such a reality is awful, but precisely because it is awful.  Pretending that we are viewing and treating each other equally only makes the situation worse.

As a Christian, I yearn to see the Church standing out for our opposition to the sexism and racism in our society.  However, given the fact I study issues of gender and religion, I’m almost reminded daily that my hopes don’t match reality.

Let me just note two recent statistics on gendered realities in the Christian community, recognizing that it’s not a monolithic community.

  • Within colleges that are members of the CCCU (Christian Coalition of Colleges and Universities), 6 out of 111 college presidents are female.  The data for this chart comes from recent efforts & research of the CCCU examining these gender discrepancies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • A blog post yesterday on Patheos listed the top 50 influential pastors on twitter.  While I won’t argue it should be the key measure of who holds influence in the Christian community, it’s still an interesting list.  (Impossible) Challenge: Find one female on the list.  (The author, Adrian Warnock, followed up the list with the top 20 female Christian bloggers, but none of these were senior pastors).

If we aren’t honest with our children, we do more harm than good. When my daughter (or someone’s son) sees the chart above, or hears her friends talking about those influential blogging pastors, it communicates something.  She sees that those with the most power, those leading and making decisions, and those heralded for their wisdom are predominantly male and white.  If she and other children believe in a meritocracy, such information suggests that men must be smarter or better at these things that women, or that white people are more competent and qualified than non-whites. That’s not true.

Some days it’s hard to move from one disappointing fact to another.  This morning, I followed the discussion with my daughter to one where we talked about abuse in families during my morning class, and the failure of churches to engage in structural justice efforts in my afternoon class.  Students probably left both of those feeling a bit deflated, much like my daughter appeared as she ate her cheerios.  I agree with Margarita Mooney’s blog post noting that sociologists can often concentrate on the negative, and that “describing social problems is not the equivalent of describing the conditions that promote human flourishing or foster the common good.”  Clearly, most of my day was not engaged in such a project.

But to move towards change, we have to be aware of what’s wrong.  And it’s never too early to help kids to see it. I believe that many in the world, and within the evangelical community, can often undervalue women for the ways that they might be involved in God’s radical mission for the world. But this is not the end of the story. As my daughter looked at me sadly when I explained the prevalence of inequality today, I did engage in some positive perspective.  I reminded her that God doesn’t view us that way.  Thanks to a class I took as an undergraduate with Dr. Robert Kiely on early Christian literature, I was also able to tell her that some of the earliest Christians drew the attention of others as they broke gendered norms in worship, following messages of gender equality that Christ preached.  As I saw her eyes twinkle, I smiled. I witnessed her hope for a broken world, a hope much more valuable than a childish innocence of sin.

When Growth is Bad

The Hastert Center for Economics, Government, And Public Policy  at Wheaton College hosted an event last Thursday on the morality of economic growth, co-sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute.  The central speaker, Dr. Smith of Gordon College, argued that economic growth should be a moral imperative for Christians, especially if we are concerned about poverty.

As a person engaged in economic sociology (and a respondent at the event), I appreciated the fact this conversation was taking place. We need more dialogue on the moral character of market life. What does it mean to live ethical economic lives—as individuals, communities, and societies?

However, in a world where it seems that governments and policy-makers often just assume that growth is good, I’d like to suggest that growth in itself is not good. I recognize the great strides we have made in lowering infant mortality (and the rise in other development indicators) in the last two centuries. However, I think we should ask, “When is growth good?” or “How do we promote ethical economic growth?”

Some reasons why I think growth is sometimes not good:

1.Poverty and inequality are related.  Many people will focus on absolute poverty as the central issue.  Clearly, issues of absolute poverty are important.  As Christians, we should be invested in anti-poverty efforts that ensure people have enough to eat and a place to live.  But relative poverty is also important—a concept that considers one’s wealth and resources in relationship to others in society.  Relative poverty can negatively impact one’s social networks, employment, educational opportunities, and political involvement. Growing inequality is often linked with increased social isolation (that is, the poor living with the poor, and the wealthy with the wealthy).   In a world where the wealthy have more than enough, ethical growth must be measured in terms of how the poor fare—not only in absolute terms, but also relative to the wealthy.

2. Value creation matters.  While the ends of growth are important, the means by which growth is received and earned is also important.  How is economic growth achieved?  Is it through individuals having more creative power to exercise?  Is it through business being able to get more out of workers and manage the process more effectively?  In an economic marketplace where businesses have more power than individuals, and the poor are at the bottom of commodity chain processes, ethical growth demands attention to increasing the capacity of the poor to be involved in more active and significant ways in the economy. It should increase the potential of those at the bottom to be involved in value-creation activities.

3. Relationships are central.  The rise of a free-market system is connected in some ways to a more depersonalized market.  Most of us do not know the people that we are involved with in economic transactions.  But this does not mean those relationships do not exist.  Many assessing economic growth center on the individual as the basic unit of analysis, and maximizing individual (or the sum of individual) well-being as the end goal.  But as Christians, why should we assume the individual is the central variable of analysis?  In my study of religious communities engaging in debates over international trade, I find that they all prioritize right relationships and community as a central goal of economic life.  What would it mean to demand ethical and life-affirming relationships as a basis for market transactions?

Although economic issues are often considered distinct from moral issues, many voices (religious and otherwise) are challenging this assumption.  As a sociologist, I recognize that markets are social constructions, and values are embedded within them.  As a Christian, I want to live in right relationships (with others, with God, with the earth).  For me, this means asking how engage in more ethical relationships within a depersonalized market, and how to promote policies that prioritize (more) healthy relationships within the marketplace.

 

 

That’s Just How Women (and Men) Are

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the stereotypes that we place on one another, and the implications of those stereotypes, particularly along gendered lines.  (Jerry’s recent post reminds us, however, that issues of race & gender are deeply intertwined).  As the macro-level, I know about the destructive nature of many of dominant stereotypes that exist in our society.  But at a personal level, it is often difficult for me to know how to respond to gendered stereotypes.

 

 

 

In discussing why gender inequality continues to persist amidst social changes, sociologist Cecilia Ridgeway (Framed by Gender, Oxford, 2011) notes that the gendered stereotypes we hold are often resistant to change.  This has important implications.

 What people think “most people” assume about gender… [is what] people use to coordinate their behavior with others on the basis of gender (159).

In other words, stereotypes are often more important in shaping our actions that our beliefs about our “own gendered characteristics.”  In part, this happens because of a pressure to conform to public expectations, or bear negative reactions from others.

]These stereotypes are destructive.  While they hurt both men and women, women face more restrictions and consequences than men from them. Recently, our department hosted a screening of Miss Representation.  This 2011 documentary highlights the ways that negative media representations of women and girls are connected to the low levels of leadership that women have in our society, especially in politics.  Although it’s not addressed in this film, most of us would acknowledge that in the evangelical world, additional pressures exist that can hinder women from leading.

How do we respond?  As a professor at a Christian college, one of my goals is to encourage my students to be open to wherever God would lead them, and to be willing to follow Him in radical ways.  I want to see them use their passions for His Kingdom.  Frederick Buechner writes, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” (Wishful Thinking, HarperOne, 1993, 57).  I want my students to discover those places, wherever they may be.

As I suspect is the case with most readers, I daily encounter gendered expectations. I know I am not alone. Our society of course, is not monolithic, and those expectations vary in different contexts (even as some consistency may exist).  Some seem quite innocuous.  Others don’t. They all matter.

As a Christian covered by grace, I want to live a life of extending grace to others.  Sometimes my first thought is to downplay the significance of these stereotypes and expectations.  I don’t want to make a person feel bad by letting them know I don’t fit their assumptions.  Life will just be easier if I go with the flow.  It’s not really that big of a deal if I change my behavior in this setting. I know that I’m more competent than they see me, and I don’t want my pride to get in the way.

Yet reading Ridgeway, I was reminded that this is not about me.  It’s about stereotypes that will hinder (and have hindered) students I hope to encourage, my daughters, my friends, and people I don’t know. They are destructive, and my acquiescence can be part of the problem. One of my hopes this holiday season is that I will take more responsibility in challenging these gendered stereotypes in grace, and encourage others to do so as well.
 


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