Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Work vs poverty

If you work in this country, you should not be poor.”

--Barack Obama
Dallas, Texas
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Reunion Arena


1) Is this true? Do you agree? Why or why not?

2) If it is true, what does this statement imply or suggest?

3) If it is not true, what does that say about work and its value in view of the traditional high regard with which we have always held it?

4) If you were making a speech on work and advancing economic progress among the poor, would you ever use such a line? Why or why not?

5) If you wouldn't, what line would you put in its place?

Just wondering.



Justin said...

Does he mean work full time (40 hours a week) or just at all?

Does he mean unable to feed yourself and your family, or just not have as nice of things as others?

Does he mean you shouldn't be poor because your wages are so low you can't afford to live, or does it also include people who are poor because of bad spending decisions, not lack of money?

This is why I'm not big on most politicians. They remove the nuance to appeal to the vast majority of people. This is true of Republicans and Democrats. When you make blanket statements, its important that your terms are defined appropriately, but that doesn't translate to sound bites, so... it is what it is.

Larry James said...

Justin, just for the sake of this conversation, let's assume that the Senator meant what you would consider to be the right answers to the questions you ask in your response here. In other words: providing basic necessities, poor due to inadequate wages. I don't like sound bites either. But my intention here is to talk about work and enduring poverty. So, now, I'd like to have a conversation with those assumptions in play.

Justin said...

I just realized I didn't answer the question, kinda like a politician myself. ;)

I guess when it really comes down to it, I can't say that I agree with the statement. In a perfect world, I would hope that just by working, one could make enough to not be poor by any standards, but I don't think we can legislate that sort of thing, because its controlled by the forces of the market to begin with, not by mean or evil people who just want to hurt the poor. The amount of money one is paid is determined by several factors; how much the work is worth to the employer (he cannot pay someone more than the work is worth, because he/she loses money on that deal) and its also determined by the available labor in said area. If the economy is doing really well, and unemployment is low, job choice is plentiful and wages rise to try and acquire the best workers. If unemployment is high, and workers are over plentiful, wages will go lower and must go lower. One, because the wage is determined by what the best qualified worker is willing to work for, and in a situation where jobs are scarce, not much money is better than no money for many people. Second, this is necessary because the company has to make money, and if many people are out of work, and wages in general are low, companies cannot afford to have high operation costs and stay in business.

In our current situation, we have a slowing economy with rising prices. Its not gonna be good for the vast majority of Americans, and I personally, am scared to death. The only tool the fed has left is to print more money to try and stave off a recession, and yet, as we saw yesterday, we had a 1 percent increase in wholesale prices in January. That's 12 percent annual inflation, and that's gonna hurt the poor the most. Our country has no money, and even if we get out of Iraq, which I want to do, we're still gonna have to print money if we want to do any sort of poverty relief. If we raise the minimum wage, many companies, especially small businesses, will go out of business, making more people poor.

The best thing the government can do is allow competing currency (ie gold and silver) and deregulate businesses in many areas, including minimum wage restrictions, which when the economy goes into recession or depression, the minimum wage will keep companies from hiring, and I gotta tell ya, if my option is no money vs 3 dollars an hour, I'm gonna work for 3 dollars an hour, and I'm sure you would too.

Arlene Kasselman said...

I think in a culture like this where work is held up as the "solution to all ills" and work ethic is what people like to talk about along with independence. One should be able to say that if one works you shouldn't be poor. That would line up logically with American thinking. However, it is not true.

The working poor surely are the most growing segment of our society.

I do not think this has anything to do with how people spend their money. I think it is about low wages, lack of benefits, independence, self worth and being valued.

Just my 2cents.

Justin said...

I didn't answer all of the questions, though I've said alot. I'll try to be brief on the other questions.

3. I don't really understand what is meant by this. There is a verse in Thessalonians where Paul gives the example of not being a burden on people. I imagine that is where our understanding of work comes from... that and just throughout history, man's natural state is what we would understand as dire poverty, but through work, we've made life much easier for many across the world. If we stop working, that will quickly end.

4. I wouldn't use that line, no. One, because I think the poverty is a very relative term, and no matter how the wealthy the world becomes, there will always be those with more than others, which will inevitably lead some to classify those with less as poor.

5. Were I running for President, which I'd never do because I think being involved in government puts Christians in a place where they must make decisions which conflict with the teachings of Christ, I would tell the American people that if we are to call ourselves Christians, we must step up and be involved in the lives of others. That as we have been blessed, we must bless those who struggle. That I would try to foster an economy that doesn't make it tougher to climb out of poverty, but that I believe it is subhuman to create people dependent on the government for their lives.

Anonymous said...


1) Is this true? Do you agree? Why or why not?

I think it would be better to say, “If you work in this country, you don’t have to be poor unless you choose to work and give away your wages to the poor.”

2) If it is true, what does this statement imply or suggest?
It would sugggest that Godly people in this country would not allow any poverty. God says, “Blessed are the poor.” God called a rich man to become poor by giving his considerable wealth to the poor.” Jesus was rich and became poor. Intentional poverty to give us riches.

3) If it is not true, what does that say about work and its value in view of the traditional high regard with which we have always held it?
It says that politicans who are about wining and losing must say things that help them get to the top and stay there. Win/Lose. This isn’t to be more critical of them than I am of myself. I am a preacher and when I got my current ministry job, I got the job and another man lost the job. Jesus came to earth to help all of us to be winners.

4) If you were making a speech on work and advancing economic progress among the poor, would you ever use such a line? Why or why not?
No. I would try to encourage them by asking them to reflect upon what they truly believe they are called to by God. Help them enjoy God. Help them move from being an uneducated victim to being an enlightened giver of the things God has given to them whether rich or poor.

5) If you wouldn't, what line would you put in its place?
Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God. Mt. 5.3
Or from a book I suspect someone in your linage liked
James 1.10
The one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower. I am one of these rich Americans whom God is always reminding to give it away. It is still a work in progress, but I must remember, God is God and me and my wealth are as permanent on this earth as a danelion.

Larry Wishard

Anonymous said...

I must admit that I enjoy the humility and the joy of interacting with your fertile mind Larry James.
I feel like it get to sit at your morning staff meeting sometimes and it feels good.
Larry Wishard

Politics & Culture said...

No, it is not true. I might say that if you work in this country, you should not remain poor.

I just read a great book along these lines. It taught me a lot about homelessness, hard work, making good decisions and thrift.

The book is "Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for The American Dream" by Adam Shepard. Check it out HERE.

Matthew said...

Depends on what poor is, but in Waynesboro, TN, many people work hard but the wages are extremely low. It is the working poor.

Anonymous said...

N, I would not use that line. I agree there is just too much nuance to make such blanket statements. I am not a purist libertarian, but I do believe that labor has a market value, and that not every job can be expected to keep people from being (relatively) poor. Also, "poor" is soooo relative, it is not useful without full definition. Over 2B people live on less than $2a day. In the US, a family making $20,000 a year is "poor." This line is an initially appealing soundbite, but not truly helpful.

Anonymous said...

It seems strange to me that so many commenters appear to have interpreted this statement as a description of present reality instead of as a moral declaration of what ought to be. Phrased more carefully, it would read, "you should not have to be poor." I thought that was obvious. Maybe I'm misreading others' comments.

Justin, your second response really frustrates me without surprising me. It seems that property rights and free markets are the foundation for your arguments, and you admit no critical inspection of them. What if morality were the foundation, and you allowed morality to critique property rights and free markets?

Consider this passage: "I don't think we can legislate [living wages], because its controlled by the forces of the market". But we do legislate the existing structure: incorporation laws, coinage, weights and measures, estate laws. In short, we legislate into being all the infrastructure that makes ownership and trade possible. If those laws result in immoral circumstances --- a person cannot acquire a decent living by working --- then why shouldn't we change them? Why must the laws be morality's master instead of its servant?

Consider this: "[the employer] cannot pay someone more than the work is worth, because he/she loses money on that deal". Why is employment reduced to a "deal"? Why must the employer avoid losing money on any "deal"? Job-seekers with enough land could work that land to make a living. Is it moral for their lack of title to land (legislated by the government) to preclude them from making a living at paid labor?

I could continue. Is it moral to have unemployment? Is it moral to pay "not much money" for labor that cannot sustain itself on such a wage? Why is it that a "company has to make money"?

One of the great problems with libertarianism is that it places property rights and corporate rights above human rights. So many of us have rejected it because we realized that property and corporations cannot suffer or enjoy or love. The longer you live close to suffering, defeat, dashed hopes, and renewed dreams, the more you embrace existential veins of philosophy and theology; those very human experiences are what's real and what's important.

As I said, some have realized the importance of humanity and are now dealing with the implications of that realization. It sometimes breaks our hearts that others haven't seen the same reality.

Jeff W

Randy said...

Many years ago, a favorite magazine had a column entitled "Quoted without comment."

I agree with Senator Obama. But here is the quote, without comment, from a must read book on this subject:

"Most of the people I write about in this book do not have the luxury of rage. They are caught in exhausting struggles. Their wages do not lift them far enough from poverty to improve their lives, and their lives, in turn hold them back. The term by which they are usually described, “working poor,” should be an oxymoron. Nobody who works hard should be poor in America." (The Working Poor: (Invisible in America)
by David K. Shipler (2004)
p. ix).

Anonymous said...


The issue, for me, is how much government intervention is truly desirable/useful/beneficial, and how that intervention should be accomplished. While I think the cry of "raise the minimum wage and put the poor out of work" is raised too quickly and easily, it's true that at some point, some jobs just wouldn't exist anymore. Is that at $10? $15? I don't know, but that point of diminished returns IS there. That is why no one is arguing solely for govt mandated employer health care. It would simply price too many jobs out of the market.

So the issue, to me, is how - between mandates (like min wage) and direct govt action I (like maybe medicaid) we can lift as many as possible out of dire poverty.

But I still think work = no poverty is a simplistic, political sound bite.

Anon 10:45

Charles said...

There are a lot of political and economic considerations here, but I'm going to approach it from my "step out on faith" gut.

1) Is this true? Do you agree? Why or why not?
--Gonna steal your medicare line Larry: It is true, but doesn't need the first 6 words. Who SHOULD be poor? Who deserves not to have a basic life? I'm sure most standards could identify someone, but if Christ forgave us for our sin, I can't imagine keeping survival resources from someone based on any relative difference in behavior.

2) If it is true, what does this statement imply or suggest?
--A variety of reasons cause individuals and the society as a group to hoard resources.

3) If it is not true, what does that say about work and its value in view of the traditional high regard with which we have always held it?
--Work is the real American Idol.

4) If you were making a speech on work and advancing economic progress among the poor, would you ever use such a line? Why or why not?
5) If you wouldn't, what line would you put in its place?
--Such a speech doesn't really fit into this perspective.

I know this is extreme - I can't claim that my life or almost anyone's is lived in this way. I wish I could, but I have my own reasons/fears/obligations that I haven't worked through yet. That approach was fun, but let me take a purely secular economic angle on it.

1) Is this true? Do you agree? Why or why not?
--Yes. Our minimum wage is well over most companies' average daily income, so what's needed for life should be available to almost anyone with a job. My personal definition of work isn't just employment but any productive effort, whether it's school, taking care of family, training for the current or next job, or any of a host of activities that promise to increase productivity.

2) If it is true, what does this statement imply or suggest?
--There is a problem in our country's compensation system, or in our pricing system. Either one could produce the disconnect.

3) If it is not true, what does that say about work and its value in view of the traditional high regard with which we have always held it?
--If working can leave you poor, there is less incentive to work low-paying jobs than any amount of welfare can produce unless society is willing to let more people die from lack of resources.

4) If you were making a speech on work and advancing economic progress among the poor, would you ever use such a line? Why or why not?
--Nope. It still segregates an Us vs Them that only the people in this country matter. I understand the political necessity, but every secular government ends because the Them grow in numbers and desperation, rarely because another power supplants them.

5) If you wouldn't, what line would you put in its place?
--Fear of poverty takes up too much of our time, our effort, our resources, too much that could be doing amazing things for ourselves and our world.

I hope that made sense.

Charles said...

Whoops - in the second set of answers #1, "most companies' average daily income" should be "most countries'". Apologies for any confusion.

belinda said...

In some cases, there are people working two or more jobs, making minimum wage JUST to have a roof over their head and food on the table. We're not talking anything lavish. Many buy clothing from a second-hand store. Of course there's nothing wrong with that, but many times it really does a number on our children. People can't afford to take their children to the doctor. Something is VERY wrong with this situation.

Justin said...

Anon 12:48

In this country, and any democracy for that matter, property rights and free markets are essential pieces of free society. Without those, there is no freedom. That's not ok with me. At least in a free society, I have some level of control over my destiny, small as it may be. There is hope in that control, that if I continue to work hard, I can eventually be blessed with a better standard of living, but even if I'm not, I still did the best that I could do. When sacrifice that liberty for security from the government, sure it might be good for a while. But when it goes bad, what happens then? The planned economies of the Soviet Union, as well as Cuba, and North Korea, didn't turn out so well. From my understanding, the people there were and are in far worse situations than the poorest in this country.

"if morality is the foundation"

You're going to have to be more clear here. Christian morality? If so, which Christian morality? Like I said earlier, definition of terms is key. Personally, I think its immoral to force charity from people. The ends do not justify the means. It might help a person out if I turned all Robin Hood and started robbing banks and giving it to the poor... at least for a while. There are unintended consequences that would mostly hurt the "wealthy" in that situation, but it would eventually come back to the poor.

"Why must the company not lose money on the deal"

Because a company can only exist as long as it is making a profit, or at the very least, breaking completely even. But if its just breaking even, it won't take much of an economic slowdown to put it right into bankruptcy, and then those jobs are gone, competition leaves the market, and prices rise elsewhere, hurting more people than ever.

"rejecting libertarianism, because property rights trump human rights"

What are the human rights that you speak of, and where do you get them? From the Bible? From another code? From your own understanding of how things should be? In this country, human rights are spelled out in the Constitution. If you don't agree with what is there, you should lobby for change. I don't think anyone has the right to have everything provided for them. I don't think that's an unchristian value either. Paul was clear that if those in Thessalonica didn't work, they didn't eat. And he held himself to that as well, even though he could have legitimately required money for his ministering to the church there.

While I don't believe the creation story in Genesis to be literal, I do believe that there are themes to be taken from the book. One of them is that in a fallen world, one must work to stay alive, and that life isn't always going to be peachy keen.

We don't have a right from our government, or God, to everything that we could possibly desire or need. And the truth of the matter is, most of the luxuries we enjoy here in the states are the products of capitalism which you so despise. Without capitalism, we wouldn't have computers to be arguing on here. We sure as hell wouldn't be able to come close to feeding as many people as we do around the world. We wouldn't have medicines for diseases. We wouldn't be able to mass produce goods so that they are affordable for many Etc Etc Etc. And at the backbone of these advances, whether you would like to believe it or not, is private property rights, the free market, and free people.