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.

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.

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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.

Poverty and the “Model Minority”

As Asian Pacific American Heritage Month draws to a close during this election year, I wanted to draw attention to the issue of poverty as it remains quite significant in light of the recent recession. Believe it or not, poverty is a real issue for Asian Americans. I write this with the understanding that many Americans hold to an onerous stereotype sometimes described as the model minority myth.  

The myth asserts that certain minorities are so exemplary in their socioeconomic achievements that they stand apart in contrast to those “other minorities” who don’t share the same degree of material success. Asian Americans are described as being today’s model minority. The singular number is intentional as American society likes to keep race and ethnicity simple: apparently all Asian Americans are alike in their successes. How do we know this? The Census! When you see Census figures based on race, it sure looks like Asian Americans do stand out. In the past 2 censuses they showed above average incomes. What accounts for this remarkable feat? [Read more...]

Danny Chen and the Beloved in the twilight of Chinatown

Happy Lunar New Year everyone! If you’re like a lot of Americans, you may not have much exposure to Chinese culture and yet you’ll know exactly where the nearest Chinese restaurant or buffet is. On a few occasions my friends want to go to a Chinese or pan-Asian buffet for a meal, and recently I looked around more carefully at the men and women that are working there. These days the staff at a buffet aren’t always Chinese or Asian, but they are clearly not well off. Some of them might resemble my Asian American peers who worked at their parents’ or a relatives’ restaurant out of duty and to earn a little spending cash. Many of these teens and young adults wound up going to college and landing middle class jobs. Theirs was the story of the classic model minority: started out working class, often under difficult circumstances, worked hard to make it to the middle class or higher and achieved it. [Read more...]


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