"If you care about marginalized people -- if you care about the oppression of women, LGBT people, disabled people, African Americans and Hispanics and other people of color -- you need to do more than go to same-sex weddings and listen to hip-hop. You need to support economic policies that make marginalized people's lives better. You need to oppose economic policies that perpetuate human rights abuses and make marginalized people's lives suck."~ Greta Christina, Salon
I had the opportunity to have lunch this summer with someone whose life is, in some ways, much like my own, and in others, worlds apart. We are both 40-something, college-educated, White, cisgender women who voted for a democratic candidate in the 2020 presidential election. We are both mothers. Religion plays a central role in our lives—Judaism in mine and Episcopalianism in hers. We no doubt have some values in common, such as respect, learning, and being of service.
There is also a considerable chasm between us, as was acutely evidenced by a conversation that shed light on our differing beliefs about the economic inequality that not only plagues America but is the very marrow of capitalism. And though the springboard for our discussion was Jeff Bezos, clearly the chasm has little to do with Bezos himself but rather the ways in which he personifies the selfishness and greed our current economic system prizes and perpetuates. If, as a parent and a person of faith, one is not alarmed and motivated by the staggering wealth and pervasive, deepening poverty in our midst, who are we -- and what are we teaching our kids?
One example of our differences was my lunchmate’s belief that "lack creates motivation" and that if someone doesn't like their low-wage job, they can/should "just get a different job" (McDonald's is always hiring). The very definition of "oppressive" is: "unjustly inflicting hardship and constraint, especially on a minority or other subordinate group." Placing the responsibility on the worker when the company is more than capable of increasing wages -- and even a relatively small increase would make a world of difference when it comes to financial stability for millions of people -- fits this definition perfectly. Intentionally or not, it epitomizes a trifecta of ableism, classism, and racism, oversimplifying the equation by failing to account for the many components that make things like "choice" possible: stable housing and reliable transportation, childcare, and ample paid time off, among other things.
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A person who casually suggests someone "just get a different job" if they don't like their current low-wage job most likely has these and other cushions. Put simply, this view is little more than blaming the poor for their plight in the name of the great American myth of meritocracy: If you work hard, you can achieve financial security and a "good life." If this belief had teeth, we would not have nearly 34 million American children living below the poverty line.
Earning minimum wage might be fine if you're a middle-class college student looking to make some extra cash. But it’s unsustainable for any adult in just about any American city who needs to pay rent and utilities for a halfway safe and clean place to live, much less feed and clothe children and/or care for extended family members, pay for car registration, insurance, and gas, and tend to one’s physical and mental health. The strain of managing any special needs, medical conditions, or the inevitable personal emergencies that everyone faces at least from time to time that require one to take time off from work might be the difference between getting by and disaster. And all of this is to say nothing about things those who earn more might also take for granted, such as health savings accounts, retirement options, or any kind of long-term care planning.
In a word, "just" getting a different low-wage job, as my lunch companion suggested, does nothing to improve this person's situation. Additionally, those working low-wage jobs are more likely to be receiving some form of government assistance for housing, food stamps, or other resources. Anyone who has ever navigated these systems will concur that they are bureaucratic, decentralized, time-consuming, dehumanizing, and -- in a word -- punishing.
Speaking of government-sponsored programs, what about the "if you just give people handouts, they won't be motivated to work" argument? I would argue something entirely different. When someone doesn't need to worry on a routine basis about their most basic needs being met -- housing, food, health care -- they are much more likely to seek out work that is not only sustainable financially but also meaningful both personally and contributive to society in some way.
The ugly stereotype of the "welfare queen" may have originated in the late 1970s, but its roots reach back to slavery. This belief is a socially acceptable way of keeping the poor in their place. It also conveniently leaves out the fact that those who achieve middle, upper-middle, or wealthy status had plenty of handouts, packaged in the form of family connections, benefit of the doubt, "I'll put in a word for you with Roger," financial literacy, food security, academic support, retirement and college savings accounts (or any savings, for that matter), and myriad other resources that facilitate upward mobility in this country.
The familiar adages such as "but they worked hard for their money" or "but they earned their wealth" is one of the most stubborn and pervasive of American myths. No one is saying folks didn't work hard. But consider this staggering figure from the Pew Research Center: "The typical white American family has roughly 10 times as much wealth as the typical African American and the typical Latino family." If hard work were the key, this wouldn't be the case. And yet this myth remains widespread. A particularly egregious example arose recently in Wisconsin, when a wealthy school district opted out of a federal free-lunch program, citing concerns it would “spoil” schoolchildren.
From the GI Bill to redlining and environmental racism, the U.S. has a long and consistent record of paving the way for the "haves" to have more and the "have nots" to stay in a purgatory of intergenerational poverty. This isn't to say some people don't break out of it; what's critical is to distinguish between individual stories and unchanging systemic patterns. America loves the exceptional and often uses "success" stories as a way of punting, rather than squarely facing the facts of our nation's disgraceful, and I would argue immoral, inequities. This is but one example of where class and race intersect; neither can be fully considered without the other.
The idea that one can uphold socially "liberal" values while remaining financially conservative just doesn't hold water. As articulated by the Berkeley Economic Review, "Social issues are inherently economic. It is willfully ignorant to believe that the government can be removed from intervention in the market and to trust the market to uphold equality on its own—one of the focal points of fiscal conservatism—when the government intervened in the economic system to uphold inequality in the first place." 
Coming back to our common ground, Judaism and Episcopalianism (along with many other Christian denominations, not to mention other faith traditions) both have long-standing traditions of fighting for greater social and economic equality and equity. Our personal compassion, as informed and guided by our faith, matters a great deal, but we are missing the mark if we don't apply it more broadly to challenge the very systems that continue to justify and uphold oppressive beliefs and policies alike.
Andy Horowitz, reflecting on how to make life sustainable in Louisiana – and anywhere else for that matter in this era – reflects: “we’re told to be resilient, which usually means that we should attempt to find individual solutions to our structural problems.” My thoughts move quickly from here to the concept and commandment of tzedakah: often translated as “charity,” it’s important to note the word’s roots in justice, tzedek.
If we truly want to create a more just society, if we truly want to eradicate childhood hunger and cycles of poverty, if we truly care about racial justice, and if we truly want to raise kids who challenge the false equivalency between wealth and worth, we must dig deep into the long-held and in some cases stubborn beliefs and behaviors that keep the chasm in place. This means dismantling the story that any of us is “self-made” rather than putting the onus on those with the least power to make the most changes. It’s hard and necessary work, and Labor Day is a perfect time to renew our commitment to creating and bolstering systems that emphasize collective care over defending billionaires.