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Ways of the World

Carol Stone, business economist & active Episcopalian, brings you "Ways of the World". Exploring business & consumers & stewardship, we'll discuss everyday issues: kids & finances, gas prices, & some larger issues: what if foreigners start dumping our debt? And so on. We can provide answers & seek out sources for others. We'll talk about current events & perhaps get different perspectives from what the media says. Write to Carol. Let her know what's important to you:

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Putting a Face on Economic Inequality

Perhaps you have read the press coverage over the past couple of weeks about James Robertson, a factory worker in Rochester Hills, Michigan.  Until two weekends ago, James walked every day, Monday through Friday, from his home in Detroit to the factory, a total hike for him of 21 miles a day.  He also traveled some segments of his commute on buses, but they did not cover the whole route.  James had had a car, a 1988 Honda, but it broke down irreparably in 2005, and since he could not afford a replacement, he began his daily walking routine.  Despite the burden, Robertson has had perfect attendance at work for 12 years, rain, snow, whatever.

Over time, Blake Pollock, a bank vice president who passed Robertson frequently, noticed this hardy walker along a road where there obviously weren't very many pedestrians.  He began picking Robertson up, and they became friendly.  Then, young Evan Leedy, a computer science student at Wayne State University, learned about Robertson and set up a crowd-funding site to raise some money to buy him a car.  The hope was that they'd get about $5,000 to purchase some good, reliable used one.  Instead, there is about $350,000.  A story appeared in the Detroit Free Press, and in the wake of all the interest,  a car dealer donated a 2015 Ford Taurus.  Leedy and Robertson were to have met last week with financial advisors to set up trust accounts for maintaining the car and its associated expenses.

Robertson's job pays $10.55 an hour, well above Michigan's minimum wage of $8.15 an hour but not nearly enough for him to buy, maintain and insure a car in Detroit.  According to one insurance information website, Detroit has the highest car insurance rates of any city in the country.  Those of us in New York and some other major cities have no real appreciation for the life turmoil that can ensue when one's car breaks down in car-centered locales.  We have access to prolific public transportation; they don't.  The only thing they can do is walk.

This Is Exactly What Trinity Institute Was About
We relate this story after attending Trinity Institute in late January.  The vignette highlights exactly the kinds of people whose situations constituted much of the discussion there.  As we noted in our preview post, the subject was income inequality; speakers mainly emphasized concerns over those at the low end of the income spectrum.

In our example here, Robertson is distinctive for getting befriended by people with sufficient means to help him out of his tough circumstances.  Such personal attention is surely rare for folks in his position.  A Trinity speaker, Rachel Held Evans, a blogger on these issues, highlighted the fact that she herself has befriended a couple of people in a low-income range.  Getting to know them closely gives her a special appreciation for them as individuals just like herself but with the extra burdens of trying to get along with insufficient resources.  It brings the poverty issue into sharp relief, rather than confining it to the vague picture one gets just reading tables of numbers.

Some Commentary on What Being Poor Means
Numbers and lists can be helpful, though.  Barbara Ehrenreich's presentation brought us surprise and even shock as she listed a collection of local ordinances in cities and states around the country that interfere with the public's treatment of the homeless.  In some Florida cities, for instance, it is illegal to share one's own food with homeless people on the street or in a park.  Ms. Ehrenreich, who noted that she is not a religious believer, expressed the opinion that such regulations hardly seem Christian to her.  We all agreed, and quite audibly so.  When introducing Ms. Ehrenreich, Robert Scott, the director of Trinity Institute, spoke favorably of the fact that her book Nickel and Dimed remains a familiar read on these issues even 14 years after its publication.  Ehrenreich replied that while she is gratified that the book is still read, she is very unhappy indeed that the problems and circumstances she describes there in fact remain relevant after such a long time.  We again agreed.  Further, some local jails actually bill inmates for room and board expenses.  Would you believe??

Her presentation was part of a session on "class" matters; she was obviously emphasizing the difficulties that attend being poor, that is, the simple lack of sufficient income.  One of the panelists, R. R. "Rusty" Reno, editor of First Things, further argued that class comes first, that is, social position and one's cultural orientation.  Without sufficient "social capital", people cannot be permanently lifted out of economic poverty.  He was especially concerned about families headed by single mothers.  Few agreed with this viewpoint, especially Reno's comments about single parenthood.  Still, our own reading and even some material we've written here indicate that such two parents in a home are important in the improvement of the whole family's station in life. 

These arguments  brought the discussion to what might be done to lift the lower classes into better life positions.  Education holds a key place here.  On the Friday evening, we watched Robert Reich's film Inequality for All, after which he answered questions from his office in Berkeley, California, via Skype.  He suggests that most education efforts focus on advanced, graduate-level work, and not enough on ordinary schooling for young children.  We need education of all kinds.  At the Saturday morning session on what we can do about inequality, Nicole Baker Fulgham added weight to those views on education, much as her work which we cited here in early December relative to the racial concerns over the killing of African-Americans by police in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York.

Plentitude Helps Everyone Live More Sustainably
There are other facets to improving quality of life and diminishing economic differences.  Juliet Schor, author of True Wealth, was the keynoter at that Saturday session; she brought attention to innovations in the organization of economic activity, which lead to what she calls "plentitude": collaborative grass roots efforts that involve urban farming, food co-ops, small business financing through crowd-sourcing and credit unions.  In our example above, that crowd-sourcing tool indeed helped James Robertson get his car.  And one of the efforts the Archbishop of Canterbury (who was another of the keynote speakers) has promoted in own his local church-work in Great Britain is credit unions, which can displace ultra-expensive payday lenders.  Other kinds of economic sharing include open-source software, like Linux and Wikipedia, and forms of  transportation, such as car and bicycle-sharing enterprises.

Churches Provide Facilities and Teach About Love
How can the church contribute to all of this?  At Thursday evening's worship service, the Archbishop told us of efforts in Liverpool – one of England's poorest regions – in which the Anglican bishop and the Roman Catholic bishop worked together to set up relief efforts for unemployed coal miners.  At Saturday's panel presentations, Nicole Baker Fulgham explained how the education efforts of her group, the Expectations Project, are centered in churches, where tutoring and after-school activities can take place, which deepen education opportunities.  Other speakers brought us back to Rachel Held Evans's theme of befriending those with different positions in society; churches' outreach efforts make this part-and-parcel of their mission.  At the same time, we were admonished that when we ask questions about people's needs and desires, we have actually to listen to their answers and be prepared to take actions toward their fulfillment.  That's part of "loving our neighbors" and sharing in the Kingdom of God.

Walmart Announces Pay Raises!
And one final note as we were "going to press" with our article, Walmart, the store everyone loves to hate, announced today that they are raising the wages of thousands of their lowest-paid workers and making their work schedules more orderly and predictable.  This will hurt the company's profits in the short-run, but it is in direct response to the current concerns about the income gap.  The Walmart Foundation also announced a parallel plan to work with local community colleges and other nonprofits to increase educational and advancement opportunities for their employees.  Social pressure is having an effect.  We'll talk more about these actions – Walmart isn't the only one – as time goes on.  All of everyone's commentary about inequality is having an impact!

* * * * *

Links to Presentations and Musical Offerings
Our commentary here barely scratches the surface of this powerful conference, which included Cornel West and the Bishop of Panama, among other speakers.  But Trinity Institute does us all the wonderful favor of maintaining videos of presentations and the opening worship service, so you can see it all.  We send you here for a collection:

Besides the presentations, be sure to enjoy the choir's anthem at the opening worship: "The Dream Isaiah Saw".   Note that its title among the individual links is "Church Anthem Leaves Us Speechless" – and it did!  Also, if you need to be cheered up or have your spirit raised, watch the two Melanie DeMore segments; Ms. DeMore is called a "vocal activist" and she is indeed inspiring.  First, for the Friday morning session, and second, on Saturday morning,  Watch the audience each time get into the spirit of Ms. DeMore's songs.  Regarding the very last song, "Standing Stone", perhaps the way we began our discussion here about James Robertson, who walked to work, means that a whole collection of people around the country are "standing stones" for him and they stood by him, wanting to help him get to his job every day.

Finally, just yesterday, February 17, we found more gifts from Trinity Institute in the form of a brand new course from the website ChurchNext.  It features an introduction to plentitude by Juliet Schor and applications from community and church groups. .  We only just learned about ChurchNext as we were preparing to attend Trinity Institute, and they have numerous courses on a variety of church- and spirituality-related issues; not all of their presenters are Episcopalian, but several denominations are represented, giving a broad perspective.  The cost is quite nominal and the courses are very popular, involving online interaction among participants.  Barbara Crafton even has a course on growing old gracefully, which coordinates with material in her recent book, The Courage to Grow Old.  Check it all out!

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