Tuesday, December 14, 2010

On Economy and Church Part III: Who Among You Is In Need?

This is part of an ongoing exploration of the economy and church.  To see part II, where I cover some fundamentals of American economics and the current American economic condition (some of which may be applicable in some form outside of the United States) click here

Let's now talk a little about "class."

First, the "knowns."  My source(s) here is not a primary source and is six-years-old, by the way, but my blogging practice is to post sources if (1) they are either primary or can be backed up by primary sources if I took the time to do so, and (2) most of what is said in the source still applies at the time I am posting it.  Here is some of what we know about class, as outlined in a 2005 New York Times series called "Class Matters."  I especially recommend that first full article in the list.
  1. There is a class system in the United States.
  2. The "American Dream" of upward class mobility is more dream than reality.
  3. Upward class mobility is declining such that my generation became the first generation that will probably and almost uniformly make equal amounts or less than our parents, unlike the generations that have come before us for quite some time.
  4. The chasm between rich and poor is indeed growing.
Now let me add to the above list the following, all of which I have not yet but at some point I hope to come back and backup with sources.  In the meantime, I think some of the videos in part II of this series are good starting sources.
  1. Consumer debt is rampant among all classes.  In fact, in some cases it may be how we Americans have tried to equalize ourselves among class levels (just compare average house sizes from 1950 to 2004).
  2. Lenders have historically preyed on folks in vulnerable positions.
  3. Across the country, individual rates of debt have far exceeded our rate of savings.
Okay, so let's consider the above in relation to the economic state with which our country has been struggling for a few years, most of which is talked about regularly on the nightly news.  Consider this:
  1. In many areas of the United States, unemployment is still a big problem.
  2. Even in places where there are jobs, economic contractions from the recession have not lifted.  People who have jobs are often working fewer hours, at lower rates of pay, for fewer benefits, with reduced levels of compensation for costs such as health insurance. 
  3. Despite some loan modifications, for the most part, the great many people who have jobs but who are working fewer hours, at lower rates of pay, for fewer benefits, with reduced levels of compensation still have their pre-recession mortgages or close to pre-recession rental costs.  They also have greater health care costs (not only have benefits lowered, but prices have continued to increase).  And the cost of food is up.  So as a whole, we are trying to stretch less into more.
  4. Folks are shouldering these burdens on top of their high rates of consumer debt and low rates of savings. 
In our congregations, we must sustain our commitment to those most vulnerable among us.  This is even more true now than it ever was, as the poorest folks got hit the fastest in the economic troubles of recent years, and in many cases the hardest.  Social programs, meanwhile, that help folks when money doesn't cover the basics (food banks, utility assistance programs, and so forth), have in many cases a decreased level of funding since Americans have had to tighten our belts more collectively.  So the resources for those in greatest need are stretched even more thin at a time when they are more needed.  That's not new news, but it continues to be critical news.

Making our responsibilities even greater, in addition to that, there is an emerging need among a whole new group.  This need is found in the middle class folks, especially the lower-middle class folks, who have gotten themselves in over their heads with house payments and so forth that they can't support with post-recession levels of income and inflated costs of living.  Even if our country recovers and we can eventually return to the "status quo" (which I questioned in part II of this series), it may very well take years.  Though the need is probably less urgent than among the "working class," the suffering is largely silent.  The reasons for this include:
  1. The problem surfaced in part as the result of high debt levels, and people feel ashamed.  While high debt levels have never been part of good financial management, the truth is that what seemed to be reasonable debt to the majority of Americans five or six years ago no longer seems reasonable.  Consider the mortgages some of us were willing to pay (hey, even me just back in 2007, which is after the "bubble" started to burst).
  2. Because the issues are so entwined with debt for this particular class level, these are people who are not qualifying for the safety nets available to the "working class."  Until they lose their jobs, despite lower incomes than pre-recession and higher costs, they can't get foodstamps, their children don't qualify for free or reduced lunch programs at school, they won't likely receive utility assistance even when the power is turned off or the oil company refuses to deliver, and the food banks may not serve folks from their zip codes.
There is a lot of shame and regret tied up in the struggle of a declining middle class right now.  It is entirely possible that without anyone else knowing it:
  • A committed, pledging single member or family (with or without children) of your church has bounced checks trying to make a pledge payment.
  • Someone you know in a middle class profession is skipping lunch to make sure their kids can have dinner.
  • A seemingly middle class family in your church has had the electricity or heat turned off or nearly turned off sometime in the last month, and fears CPS would be called regarding their children if anyone finds out.
  • A parent you know in the so-called middle class isn't eating fruits and vegetables (is putting their own nutrition at risk) in order to ensure that produce is available for their children.
  • Someone in a middle class neighborhood near you (maybe even your own) is calling the water company to make payment arrangements this month so they can afford to pay enough of the natural gas bill that it won't be turned off.  Meanwhile, they haven't paid the phone company in two months and are waiting for the inevitable cancelation notice.
I realize, of course, that folks spent more money on "Black Friday" than expected, and that we're all supposed to feel good that this means the above issues are unlikely as we continue our so-called economic "recovery."  But I've seen enough suffering going on with folks I know and love to trust "Black Friday" as a good indicator.  I also think our spending shows an unfortunate willingness to return to the status quo, to continue increasing our debt at the first signs of economic recovery.  This isn't a good sign.  This is a sign of more and greater trouble to come.

If I am right, what does this mean for us as a people of faith?

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