James: Applied Theology

James: Applied Theology December 17, 2015

A reader writes:

There have been two families of note that have come our way who were on the verge of homelessness.

One in my clinic and the other in our Cub Pack.

When folks who talk about providing support make some hogwash talk about “money isn’t really the solution,” they exhibit ignorance.

Both of these families have the same stories- chronically sick kids two parents working, and then one parent loses a job for some reason and then they fall behind on rent (which is under $1300/month).

Charity saved both families.

1. Money solves many problems.
2. Why can’t a family support themselves with one full time (and more than full time) worker? Why is it taking two?

Because we have decided that the working poor are lazy and should not be paid a living wage and because we have decided to spiritualize the gospel into the ether so as to avoid talking hard facts about money. It’s all in James, both in his warning that faith without works is dead and his dire warning that cheating workers of a just wage is, as the Church will later call it, a sin that cries out to heaven for vengeance.

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  • We haven’t decided jack except that we don’t like economic bondage and would like to end it throughout the world. When you add billions more into the global labor pool, low wages is what you get. It’s an expected, unavoidable consequence of a very good thing, the partial economic liberation of China and India and the rest of the third world.

    The cure for this is to get a new skill set and to start getting income via investing as well as your personal labor. This does two things:
    1. It diversifies income sources so that hopefully you eventually get out of the path of the oncoming train marked labor oversupply
    2. It drives up labor demand which lessens that unfortunate and unavoidable side effect of too much labor supply.

    The best time to start that transitioning from pure labor income in the 1st world was in the 1970s when Nixon opened up to China and Deng started his reforms. The second best time to start the process is today. So beyond everything else you do (and yes, charity money is unavoidable as part of the solution) include a way to do microinvesting in some currency that has small enough units of account that you can actually get paid for micro tasks while you’ve got dead time like sitting on line at the supermarket or waiting to get a day labor job at McDonalds.

    This isn’t going to fix things this family downcycle but it might help do the job two cycles from now. By all means spend money to fix things today but also set up for the long game so they don’t fall back into trouble.

    One neat trick, I recently picked up to provide short term help follows. The poor need cell phones and are paying $50 a month for a T-Mobile plan. But middle class people can get an additional line on their family plan for $10 a month. Setting up a system where people sponsor a poor person’s telephone lifeline to the job market and the poor person puts $50 in escrow and pays $10 a month yields them a savings off their budget of $40 a month at zero cost to you and a little administrative cost for a coordinator. You can help a lot of poor people by filling out your available slots on your friends and family plan with poor people.

    • LFM

      Mr Lutas, I sometimes agree with you and can partly grasp what you say here and that it might be partly right, but – good heavens. Meanwhile, your proposals, though not inherently objectionable, seem far-fetched.

      • I was very angry when I wrote what I wrote. There is a deleted first draft that rightly will never see the light of day. Here’s what made me angry, “Because we have decided that the working poor are lazy and should not be paid a living wage and because we have decided to spiritualize the gospel into the ether so as to avoid talking hard facts about money.” That statement is an example of intellectual arson, practically tailor made to turn into an angry shouting match that confirms people in their prejudices without helping the poor one iota. I am interested in helping the poor.

        As for the practicality of what I am saying, I’ve been running tests on myself to do exactly this and am seeking to create software to facilitate the process out of my own pocket. When it goes live, I hope to make a small but significant contribution to getting us beyond the pointing and name calling to fix our current unsatisfactory situation where the poor (also the middle class) have things unjustly stacked against them.

        • LFM

          I will look into it and see if I can learn anything I can put to use myself.

        • wineinthewater

          It should make you angry, but because it is true to a shameful extent. It’s about more than just the minimum wage, but there is a widespread contempt for the poor in this country. And it’s not just a feature of the politically right, but you see it manifest in the condescending patronizing approach of the left.

          • I just wrote on this subject at Jane the Actuary. There is a way forward and I think the right is less wrong at present but neither side, the Democratic party nor the GOP are entirely right at present.

  • LFM

    1. “Why can’t a family support themselves with one full time (and more than full time) worker? Why is it taking two?”
    2. “Because we have decided that the working poor are lazy and should not be paid a living wage and because we have decided to spiritualize the gospel into the ether so as to avoid talking hard facts about money.”

    Neither the question nor the answer show much understanding of how money and markets work – and I say this as one who is no free-marketer or libertarian, and who just endured a lengthy and frightening period of unemployment, cushioned by family thank goodness.

    Working- and middle-class wages in the Western world have been pummeled by a variety of factors since the early 1970s.
    • Foreign competition by superior products: American labour unions lost much of their clout when Americans refused to buy, say, American cars and bought better-made but more expensive imports. (Remember the Ralph Nader book, “Unsafe at Any Speed”?)
    • Illegal immigration: Illegal immigrants undercut unions’ power to make demands on employers for better wages and working conditions. The union organizer Cesar Chavez was strongly opposed to illegal immigration because of this; that’s why he organized strikes against American produce-growers, who used migrant workers from Mexico because they would accept lower wages.
    • The women’s movement and its demand for equal pay: You can have either “equal pay for equal work”, or you can have “living wages for heads of households”. You cannot logically have both. When the women’s movement successfully introduced the principle that single women (and thus, necessarily, single men) should receive the same wages for their work as married male colleagues with families, it undercut decades of union efforts and social custom.
    • Over-supply of labour (see also illegal immigration); baby boom and bust: A great increase in population after WWII, plus years of straitened living during the Depression and war, released intense demand for houses, cars, consumer goods. At such times, labour has power. But by the 1970s, people had begun to have fewer children, the boomer young were entering the job market, and so were women. When there is too much of something – i.e. workers – the price it can command goes down, or else the value of the money paid for it is reduced, which is what happened in the 1970s. Inflation, it’s called.
    • Freer trade: this was a later development (late 1980s), and by the time it set in the US manufacturing sector was already entering a decline. When millions of dirt-poor people around the world, people willing to work for nearly nothing (sometimes just a meal and a roof) enter the job market, their work is bound to affect the cost of goods and to undercut protections for better-paid workers. Even high tariffs could not price them out of the market because they worked for so little. (There’s much here that I admit I don’t understand, about the timing and so on. Perhaps Lutas could add something?)

    Finally, whatever conservative and liberal rhetoric may claim, the United States already spends rather a lot on trying to help poor people so it’s not as if there is no money available for families like the ones in these stories. However, such help does not seem to be efficiently distributed or readily available in emergencies. I do not understand enough about your country’s distribution of aid to be quite certain of what the problems are. Meanwhile, I don’t think most people, even rabidly conservative ones, are opposed to helping families in situations like this, even with their own money. (Aren’t American conservatives supposed to give more money to charity than American liberals?)

    • LFM

      I apologise for the length of that screed.

      • Mike Petrik

        You should just link to news stories that allow you to demonstrate moral preening via short rant. Do it regularly and you can be a Catholic blogger.

  • Sue Korlan

    Another cause of poverty in the US is the high price of the necessities of life. This is exacerbated here in South Bend by the city demolishing empty houses and billing the owners for the cost in order to keep up the cost of housing for renters.

  • wineinthewater

    I think a big part of the problem is that we virtually eliminated a whole segment of family-supporting jobs through globalization and never replaced them. It is now very difficult to support a family with a single paycheck from a job that does not required an advanced skill set, education or talent. The service industry is the only industry ready to accept the kinds of workers who once went to mills, but jobs at McDonalds were never meant to be bread-winner jobs.

    The problem isn’t that McDonalds is not paying a living wage, its that people who need a living wage are resorting to McDonalds.