The Problem with Being Thankful

I enjoyed celebrating Thanksgiving with my family. I’m thankful for the lives of my three daughters, for my husband; I’m thankful for my parents, my siblings, and my extended family through marriage.  This season, I was especially thankful that my husband and I are able to provide for our family, to meet our children’s needs, and be able to see them thrive. Yet even as I am grateful for these things, I feel a sense of unease in thanking God for these things as good gifts.

Part of this stems from the fact that I hurt alongside with the poor when I celebrate Thanksgiving.  Bryant Myers, in his book, Walking with the Poor (1999), writes:

Poverty is a result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not     harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings.

missing photo

Social scientists often distinguish between absolute and relative poverty, because poverty is not just about material need.  One of the curses of poverty is the broken relationships that it entails.

Since becoming a mother, I often think more about what poverty means for parents, and the pain of not being able to provide for one’s children.  Sometimes when eating dinner with my pasta-loving children, I imagine what it would be like to have to tell them that I do not have food to feed them.  I watch them play, and celebrate the fact that they can live a life of childhood free from real scarcity or worry.  I rejoice in the fact that I have a job that gives me the time (and energy) to spend time just being and loving my children in person.  But I do not take these realities for granted.

While prosperity gospel is not the prevalent paradigm within Christian churches in the United States, many of us (Christians) still see our material resources as a gift from God.  And this is the belief I wrestled with this Thanksgiving.  While I fully believe in the sovereignty of God to give to some and not to others, that’s not my dominant explanation of why I have and others do not. Many of the blessings I celebrate are linked to my social location. Recently, The Economist ran an article on inequality in the United States, noting that inequality is on the rise.  But what they highlight as one of the central problems is that social mobility is declining, declaring that “Although the United States is seen as a world of opportunity, the reality may be different.”  This argument ran under the subtitle,

A long ladder is fine, but it must have rungs

Unfortunately, there are many people who want to climb the ladder; those who want to support their families. While I will continue to be thankful for the ability to give to my children, I believe simply being thankful is not only not enough.  It’s not the full story. It fails to see the way that our gifts are often not things that are ‘given by God,’ but rather are the result of a broken and unequal system. For me, that means needing to acknowledge that I benefit from a global economic system in a way that many do not, and to ask God what it means to be faithful with those resources that I have. As I think about what that means for my own life, I keep coming back to three things:

  • To make a conscious choice not to exploit others, either indirectly or directly.  This requires me to more actively ask questions and investigate how I am able to achieve the lifestyle (and the “blessings” I have). For some, this entails questions about ethical and sustainable consumerism.
  • To be committed to helping families thrive, and to help parents be able to support their own children.  I recognize that most parents want the best for the children, and being a good parent is largely (although not solely) about having certain resources.
  • To remember why I became a sociologist. One of my central research interests deals with the way relationships are structured by changes in the international political economy.  While I often investigate macro-level concerns, it is because of the pupusa vendor in El Salvador trying to feed her children that I became a sociologist.

I am thankful to God, the giver of life.  I am thankful that He loves all His children. And I am thankful for the opportunity to try and be a part of pursuing His heart for the world.  Of course, I will not deny that I am still thankful for my family and our resources, but even more thankful that God desires for all families to thrive.

Parades and Protests

In cities across America, people marched in parades to celebrate Labor Day yesterday.  At the first Labor Day in 1882 (occurring a few years before Labor Day became an official holiday in 1894), a number of people marched through the streets of New York City.  The march 130 years ago would not have been confused with the marches yesterday, either in purpose or passion.

Walking through various neighborhoods yesterday, I saw flags hanging in front of people’s houses.  I smelled hamburgers and hotdogs cooking.  Online, I read a number of articles and other postings celebrating American workers.  For example, the US Census Bureau released this list of facts to celebrate the 155.2 million people currently participating the labor force.

For many, Labor Day is an important event, but the reasons are often very different than the reasons prompting its inclusion in the register of federal holidays. For some it marks the last day of summer before going back to school.  Many celebrate local workers (such as the fireman and police), and are thankful for the opportunities they personally have to labor in their own lives.  People often come together with family and friends. Without bemoaning these reasons for celebration, we have lost something by not remembering why Labor Day became an official American holiday.

Labor Day was originally founded in part because of class struggle.  Early organizers were concerned with two central goals:  building and inspiring the organized labor movement, and rallying the public to its cause.  In the 1930s, a number of workers were joining labor movements.  As Kazin and Ross argue (in their 1992 overview of the history of Labor Day in the United States), even with the variation across the nation in how the day was celebrated, since the 1950s, Labor Day has largely failed to evoke the raw emotions surrounding the contentious issues it once did.

It would be hard to argue that the environment towards organized labor today is a positive one.  Most will recall the events of Wisconsin in 2011, when the state—which was, ironically, the first to recognize the collective bargaining rights of workers back in 1959—scaled back such collective bargaining possibilities.  Labor movements do not have the strength they once did, although scholars of labor movements recognize the new ways that labor are involved in social movements today.

Organized labor has fewer numbers and fewer allies than it has had in the past.  Of the labor force, currently just under 12% are now affiliated with organized labor.  This chart, produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics based on 2011 data, shows how union membership varies by occupation.


Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012


What is it that we have lost, as parades down Main Street replace labor protests?

First, recent research by political scientists at Notre Dame and Texas A&M suggests that labor unions increase the “life satisfaction” of members—and non-members in areas where unions are present.  Perhaps especially important, they find that the impact of unions matters more for those with low incomes.  While I know readers of this blog will disagree about some of the current tactics and strategies used by unions, it is hard to deny the real effects that collective bargaining has had over the years.  They have been critically involved in championing changes to unemployment laws, fighting against discrimination of workers, and changing the working conditions and remuneration of members.

Second, Labor Day was not just a day where laborers worked for their goals and rallied members, but also a time when the general public was made aware of these voices (a point highlighted by Kazin and Ross).  Currently, many of those working in parallel jobs to the industries where unions abounded—many of the working poor and working middle class—do not have the same chances to have their voices heard.  Workers without economic capital and wealth are often absent from political debates about the economy (as witnessed by the current public rhetoric between democrats and republicans).

I believe that most of us want to be part of a society that provides a chance for all to participate in dignified work.  It is imperative that we not just recognize and celebrate all who labor, even as such an act is important.  We must also recognize the changes that organized labor have helped to bring about for many Americans, and the lack of power that many laborers continue to feel in our economy.

Sociological Lessons from the Game of Life

Recently, while on vacation at the beach with my family, I encountered my sister-in-law, niece and nephew in the middle of the Game of Life.” I cracked up when I found out that my 9-year old nephew was a doctor living in a mansion who had made extra money by finding buried treasure and suing someone, but my 7-year old niece was a hairdresser who lived in a double-wide trailer, had a large family (including several grandchildren) but practically no money to retire on. What inequalities, I thought!


Throughout the week, as we played the Game of Life several more times and I realized that the Game of Life must have been designed by a sociologist (or at least someone who majored in sociology in college). Why? Because we teach our students that choices you make early in the Game of Life shape the rest of your life. To illustrate, in the Game of Life the first thing each player does is choose either to start a career (and start earning money) or go to college (you delay earning money now but will earn more later). After a few rounds of the Game of Life, my nephew exclaimed, “Gee if I go to college I finish the Game of Life with a lot more money!”

Here is how Hasbro advertises the Game of Life:

“Where will your choices take you? You made it through high school, so now what’s next? Go to college or start a career -it’s your choice. Think the family life is for you? Take that path and see how many kids you’ll have! Will you venture down the risky road where fortunes can be won… and lost? Do whatever it takes to retire in style with the most wealth at the end of the game. Spin the wheel of fate and take a drive along the twisting roads families have enjoyed for more than 50 years! Do good deeds as you go through the game to earn Life Tiles and more money down the road!”

The Game of Life is also very sociological because it has spots on the game board where everyone must stop no matter what they roll. Therefore, all players must go through several key life course transitions: everyone must get married, buy a house, and have at least one child.

In real life, however, kids don’t always come before marriage, people with jobs still struggle to buy a home, and some people won’t every marry or have kids. Interestingly, despite the fact that half of marriages in real life end in divorce, no one in the Game of Life ever gets divorced. The Game of Life doesn’t tell us what happens to people who follow these different tracks, but sociologists will tell you that real life is much messier than the Game of Life.

The Game of Life does a good job of countering much of the individualist America ethos that says everyone gets what they deserve or what they work for. In the Game of Life, as in real life, your long-term economic position depends only partly on choices you make, but depends more heavily on random rolls of the dice. For example, if you roll the dice well, you find buried treasure worth $100,000. If you roll the dice poorly, you have a major car accident and lose $50,000. As my 9-year old nephew said, “You know, this game of life has a lot of chance!” Well put.

The Game of Life makes certain aspects of real life quite funny. During one game, my brother got a career as a mechanic. When his roll of the dice landed him on the block that says “job relocation, spend $20,000,” he said, “I only make $30,000 a year as a mechanic and I have to spend $20,000 to relocate?!?” I told him he was an airplane mechanic who worked for Boeing; they had closed their plant in Washington State and relocated to South Carolina. That’s a big, costly move.

Much like in real life, as I played the game of Life again and again, I kept thinking I could beat the game. That is, if I did things right, I could get the job I wanted, the kind of house I wanted, and accrue lots of money for a nice retirement. Sadly, no matter how many times I played, my life came up short.

No one at the table was really happy with their Game of Life.  In one Game of Life, my 7-year old niece decided she wanted a large family. With each roll of the dice, she begged the Game of Life, “I want kids. More kids! Grandkids! Give me kids!!!!!!” In real life, many people want kids, or want more kids, but are just as frustrated as my niece. Finishing her Game of Life with just one child and quite poor, my 7-year old niece pouted on her bed said, “This game of life is so unfair!! The person with the most money always wins at the end! I just want kids!”

What does the Game of Life teach our children us about real life? That you are not in control of your destiny, that having more than others makes you feel good about yourself, and that all you have can be lost in one day due to a lawsuit or car accident.

Is that what I want to teach our children about real life? Although, as a sociologist, I know that Game of Life has much truth in it, I also want to teach children and my students to be prepared for the real life—you may not get what you want, but you can make the best with what you have.

As I have written before, it is sometimes in not “having it all” that we come to see how much we do have. The Game of Life doesn’t tell you what to value, but if you know what you value in real life, you will be satisfied with what you have. Real life is messy and much is out of your control. So before rolling the dice, ask yourself: what do you value in life?