Happy Halloween. I hope your candy bucket is full of stuff you like to eat.
Have you eaten today?
How often do we hear that question? If you can truly answer “not often” or “never,” count yourself one of the truly lucky ones.
When were you last hungry?
I mean really really – as in “I don’t have any food and I don’t know when I will have any food” – really really hungry?
If you’re one of the lucky ones who can say you’ve never been in this situation, don’t get cocky. Every day, here in the good old U.S. of A, more and more people are falling not just below the poverty line but below the survivability line. Job loss, disability, catastrophic or extended illness, natural disaster, political unrest (think “government shutdown”), or – more likely – a combination of the above – can be the knockout punch most people won’t be able to recover from without significant help. As more social safety nets fail or are dismantled every day, the numbers of newly poor people are steadily climbing, and as those numbers go up and available resources dwindle, the numbers of people who are truly imperiled increase. Look around you – haven’t you noticed more people standing on street corners asking for help? If you haven’t noticed, I guarantee you they are there. You just need to pay attention, because you could be next.
OK – no – I’m not trying to frighten you. If you have access to this blog that means you have access to the internet, which suggests you are generally able to pay your bills for optional things like cell phones and internet connectivity. But hang with me here for a minute, because I’m finally getting to my point.
In the relentless slide from self-sustainability to economic failure, heartbreaking choices have to be made, over and over again, forcing people to decide which bills get paid, which meds get filled, which essential nutrients get ignored, which members of the family get to eat and who goes hungry. If you’re a parent, or have pets, or both, you know who gets priority: the kids and the pets. Loving parents will do anything for their kids. And loving pet protectors will do the same for their animal companions. People at least have the option of exercising a certain amount control over their own fate, most of the time, even if it’s just to decide between two equally unappealing choices. But what happens when there’s nothing left to give up?
We see it every day in outraged postings on Facebook, grim photos in the newspaper, judgmental stories on the evening news: starving dogs, cats, horses, left behind in abandoned (foreclosed) homes when owners vacate. Animals who are lucky enough to be found are often skin and bones and barely alive, suffering the fate that hits them first because when it comes down to the last bean in the can, a parent will choose to give it to a child instead of feeding a 4-legged companion.
I am not here to condemn that choice; indeed no one could, but it is a well-accepted premise that humans carry a great responsibility not only to care for their own but to care for the other animals on the planet also, especially those we have domesticated and brought into our households to suit our own purposes. Case in point: This posting popped up on my Facebook page a few days ago:
A good Samaritan found a little dog wandering in her neighborhood almost being hit by cars! She had a note in a bag attached to her with $6 in it. The note said that the owner could no longer care for her and he hoped she could find a new home. Can anyone help foster this sweet girl? The note said her name is Lucy!
This dog was fortunate. A kind-hearted soul read the note, rescued the dog, and is looking for a new safe home for her. Apparently some shelters, even high kill shelters, charge a fee ($25 and up) for people to surrender their pets. While this no doubt helps to offset the costs to run the shelter, it also undoubtedly prevents many truly destitute people from dropping pets off at all. Not that we would wish a shelter fate on any animal, but surely being safe in a kennel has to be better on some level than being abandoned or thrown from a vehicle, running loose (and likely being clobbered) on a highway, or foraging in garbage cans and running from malicious thugs.
After all, if the pet guardians had the $25 to pay the fee, they could buy dog food for another week or two instead of having to dispose of their pet.
Let’s talk for a minute about who “they” are. “They” are, but for the grace of the cosmos, you, me, our siblings, our parents, our neighbors, our extended family, our friends, our co-workers, our church associates, our barista at the local coffee hut…you get the idea. In other words, if you took time out to actually go meet and talk to “them,” you would find that “they” are actually “us” – people who share the same hopes, dreams, life experiences, and fears we all face, only a lot of their fears have been realized. Current statistics suggest that 40% of those who make up the homeless population are actually working at some kind of job, but their wages are insufficient to cover the cost of maintaining a permanent residence. If you have no permanent place to sleep, rest, or change your clothes, chances are you can’t provide a home for a dog or a cat either. Think about this. Do you really not know anyone in this situation? Another case in point: A year ago a friend of mine was injured at work and has been unable to return to that job or find any other position she could handle physically. The challenge of getting up, dressed, and out the door is so great that it takes two or three hours to do what it used to take fifteen minutes to complete. Her brains work just fine, but she can neither stand nor sit for extended periods and can walk only about 100 feet before needing to sit and rest due to pain. She is an awesome and talented employee, but since the injury she has been on medical leave from her job, scraping by on what little money is offered from worker’s compensation and disability payments. This amount is less than minimum wage, less than half of what she was making before the injury, and her original income was barely enough to meet the most basic of expenses.
Why was her original income so low? Two reasons: (1) the job she was working was considered “unskilled labor” (i.e., not worthy of meaningful compensation), and (2) even though she has some remarkable talents and skills, she lost her full-time, benefitted job during the recession and she has been unable to find permanent, high-paying employment that lets her put those skills to work. She was lucky to get the job she had, even though she was vastly over-qualified for the work.
That’s just one person’s story. A lot of very bright and capable people are stuck in low-paying jobs for which they are over-qualified, and they often have to do a lot of convincing to get hired because employers don’t like to hire overqualified people for bottom rung positions: those people don’t want to stay at the bottom. They want to move up the ladder and make more money, which means lost time and money due to recruiting again, hiring again, training again, and wondering when your overqualified help is going to quit and leave you short-handed.
So I’ve been thinking about this “what can we do to help homeless pets” issue for awhile now. Then, as if on cue, a couple of days ago another of my Facebook friends posted a clip of Dave Ramsey “explaining” why raising the minimum wage is a bad idea and how it won’t make any difference. Really? It won’t make any difference statistically? Or in his life or the lives of his financially and physically secure friends? What about the lives of the people who are currently working at or below minimum wage? How much difference would it make in the life of someone working for $80 a day (which at $10 an hour is already substantially more than most minimum wage earners are paid) to be able to bring that figure up to, say, $92 a day? You think that additional $12 a day wouldn’t matter? Think again. Twelve dollars times five days a week (assuming the theoretical minimum wage earner we are talking about actually manages to get a job that lets her work 40 hours per week) turns out to be an additional $60 of income. Take $12 of that off for taxes (but none for insurance, because she doesn’t have any because she can’t afford it), that leaves $48. What will that get her? Most of a tank of gas, so she can get back and forth to her job (because there isn’t a bus or train that will take her there)? Another day or two of child care? Another bag of groceries to feed her kids or a sack of kibbles for the dog? Maybe she can pay her electric bill on time instead of having to worry about whether the power will be turned off before she can make up that past due balance? Or maybe a trip to the dentist – one she has been putting off for years because there was simply no money for it?
So I started to respond on the public Facebook timeline to the Dave Ramsey clip, but I didn’t want my friend to think I was going for a personal attack. I don’t roll that way, but the clip was so heartless, so completely indifferent to the issues real living breathing humans face every single day, that it demands a response, which is why I am writing this entry and posting it here. <You can watch the clip here: http://youtu.be/mg5HUmFwQXE>
We may not agree on this issue, but if you’ve read this far I suspect it’s because some of what I’m saying rings true for you. And in my opinion, what Ramsey says ignores many points that we as a society can’t afford to ignore if we want to think of ourselves as “civilized.” It’s not that he’s wrong (although I think he is wrong in several important ways), it’s that his perspective is very narrow and fails to address the issue of social responsibility.
What is this “social responsibility,” you ask? In other words, what do we do about the people who for one reason or another lack alternative choices, either because they lack skills, or ability, or whatever, and are falling through the rotting financial seams of our social fabric? Ramsey freely acknowledges that he has never lived on minimum wage – and he freely denigrates anyone who does, as though it is always simply a matter of personal choice. And then he says he would never allow anyone he cares about to work for minimum wage. So….how many people does he care about? Just his immediate family? His little circle of close friends? Does he not care about other people on the planet – the people who raise his food, and prepare it and serve it to him? What about the people who weave the cloth his clothes are made from, and those who sew the garments he wears? Does he have to know someone personally in order to give a hoot about whether they can make enough to live on (so they can afford to keep doing the work they do from which he benefits)? Does he have to know them personally in order to feel compelled to intervene and refuse to allow them to work for less than they are worth, and for far less than is viable?
Since you can’t ever really know what someone else is dealing with, even outside a strictly Christian philosophy it seems hypocritical to negatively judge those who work in low-paying, labor intensive positions while claiming to be magnanimous and open minded, not to mention “Christian.” In virtually every religious belief system, it is considered the height of arrogance to look down on those who have less or who have achieved less than you have. It is considered unseemly to pass judgment on the poor simply because they haven’t had your opportunities or because they have experienced misfortune and have not been able to rebound from it. It is considered an offense against God (whichever god you worship) to ridicule, or condemn, or – worse yet – oppress, hold down, or fail or refuse to help those in need, whether they are your own family (which happens often enough) or complete strangers. Last time I checked, love thy-neighbor-as-thyself Christianity was a 24/7 life philosophy, not an “I love you because Jesus told me to; now stop needing help” philosophy. Yet here we are in a country with millions of people who claim to subscribe to Christian beliefs, who regularly and fervently proclaim that Christianity should be the official religion of this country and should be the driving philosophy behind all governmental decisions, activities, and services, who then in the same breath also proclaim that the poor and the needy are simply a drain on the economy and should be cut off and forced to live on their own resources or suffer the consequences. Really? When did Jesus ever say that? Didn’t he actually say “whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me”?
Back to Ramsey for another minute: he utterly fails to substantiate his claim that “most people who work for minimum wage are part-time workers or teenagers.” Even if his claim were accurate (which I doubt), so what? Does age or shift assignment determine the value of one’s labor? Don’t people deserve to be compensated fairly regardless of the number of hours they work or regardless of their age? Ramsey’s remarks imply that those who work part-time do so “just for fun” or because they don’t really need to work. Again – he ignores certain glaring realities. Perhaps some people have part-time jobs just to generate a bit of extra cash, but I would argue that most people who work at any job are doing so because they must have the income in order to meet their financial obligations and their basic subsistence requirements. Are they part-time because they want to be? Or because the company they work for refuses to hire them full time in order to avoid paying full time wages and benefits?
It is just too easy to make sweeping generalizations in favor of ignoring all the variables; too easy to condemn those who fight daily for survival in favor of a “if you were more ambitious you could do better” attitude. It doesn’t always work out that way. Every society on the planet has a certain percentage of people who struggle at the bottom. Advanced societies find a way to take care of everybody, either by providing meaningful opportunities at all levels, or by providing social safety nets, or both. Is America advanced? At one time I believed it was trying to be. I wish I could believe that now.
As for Ramsey’s argument that over time, capitalism allowed to regulate itself will have the effect of running unethical or immoral companies out of business, does that mean he thinks what the big banks and mortgage companies did to the economy a few years ago (and the backlash we are still feeling from all that nefarious b.s.) was OK? Do you think it was ok? Do you think you were unaffected by it? We were all affected – from those who lost their homes to those who had to stay silent in order to keep their jobs with the giant too-big-to-fail corporations to those whose 401k accounts were eaten up by failed stocks. Those greedy, we-bought-congress-and-can-do-what-we-want companies are still in business, and for the most part we are all still frequenting those establishments, putting our money in those banks, investing with those mercenaries whose CEOs and directors are still running those companies and who are still running around free instead of rotting in jail where they belong.
Perhaps you really don’t realize how close you are – all the time – to becoming one of the people Dave Ramsey looks down on. It’s not always a question of making (and living with) “lifestyle” or “spending” choices. Most of us are one paycheck, one serious illness, one car wreck away from financial ruin. Not everyone has the same range of choices available, and as life becomes harder and resources become scarcer, the range of choices becomes narrower and steadily less appealing.
Even if you personally haven’t experienced any of this, there are plenty of people who have. If you’ve never worked for minimum wage, chances are you’ve never had extended periods of unemployment either, or extended periods of being unable to feed your family, or your pets, or yourself, but there are still plenty of people who have.
I don’t know where you are now, or where you’ve been in the past, economically or intellectually, but I hope you possess that little switch in your psyche that lets you understand that there are a lot of people who wish they could come close to the level of security you have, and the range of options you have, and the comfort you have, even though they know they may never have it – through no fault of their own. Does that mean they deserve Dave Ramsey’s condemnation? or yours? or mine? Even if we can’t empathize, it seems to me they are more deserving of our help and our compassion, which lifts us all up and enriches society as a whole, than they are of any condemnation, regardless of how they may have arrived at their present circumstances and regardless of how long they may have been there. Why would we not want to show compassion? Why would we not want to help? Does helping, empathizing, being compassionate diminish or threaten you in some way? The social contract – the unwritten one that brings people together in communities and encourages them to cooperate with one another for the betterment of all – demands that we look out for everyone, and not just a select few. That’s what “government” is – it’s the social contract we all made with each other. If you don’t like the choices your elected officials are making on your behalf, it is up to you to try to make change happen – elect different leaders or change laws or get involved yourself. If you happen to be on the losing side in an election, work for change from where you are, be the grass roots, make a difference, but don’t blame your unhappiness on those who have the least to give and the most to lose, and for God’s sake (yours, mine, and theirs) don’t dismantle what few safety nets remain to take care of the most needy among us.
And Dave Ramsey, get back to your roots. You have made a lot of money explaining to people how you pulled yourself up by your own bootstraps. Have you forgotten what it was like to be petrified of losing everything? Even then, you were not in nearly as much danger as the people you now appear to despise. You have a huge audience. Instead of teaching your followers to ridicule and loathe the less fortunate, teach them to regularly and generously share their good fortune with those who need a helping hand, and to do so willingly, happily, and sincerely.
Now, back to the dogs and cats and horses and goats and hamsters and guinea pigs and fish and turtles and snakes and cockatiels whose families are forced to give them up because they can no longer feed themselves. Hate the system if you must – and work to change it for the better – and decry the injustice that forces people to make such terrible choices, and then, if you have two square feet of free space in your home, and ten spare dollars you can use for food, adopt a shelter pet, or two. You’ll be helping out a deserving animal, and helping to take some of the pressure off those at the very bottom of society’s heap. You’ll be a contributing participant in the social contract.
But keep this in mind, please: don’t adopt because you need a friend. Adopt a friend because it needs you. And then remember, this need never stops. Adoption is a lifetime commitment – not yours, theirs. Do it because you can, and because it’s the right thing to do.