HAVE WE BECOME WEARY OF DOING RIGHT? Poverty, Hunger and the Working Poor
Richard Mario Procida, Esq.
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
6Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. 7For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, 8and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. 9This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. 10For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. 11For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.
I. The Context
There are many who use religion to exploit people. There are con-artists who attempt to get religious people to give them money. I get messages and emails from these people all the time. There are preachers who feather their own nests. There are charlatans who claim to heal but who really just defraud people. There have always been people willing to exploit gullible religious people.
The early church suffered these exploits as well. By the late first century itinerant preachers would make the rounds of churches and receive financial support from congregations. [1 Corinthians 2:17 and 11:20] This put significant strain on these early churches. The author here is attempting to put a stop to it.
This instruction to make preachers work and pay their own way contradicts Jesus’ instructions to his disciples [Mark 6:7-9, Matthew 10:9-10, Luke 9:2-4 and 10: 4 and 7] and Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ instructions. [1 Corinthians 9:14] So when we look at these verses, we need to take a step back and not jump to conclusions.
None of this could in anyway mean that we should neglect the poor. The poor and poverty are mentioned 445 times in the Bible in 384 separate verses. Some sources say God’s heart for the poor is mentioned over 2000 times. There is no doubt that Jesus ministered to the poor, and that we in the church are charged to do so as well.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately one out of six Americans is now living in poverty. Some 46.5 to 49.7 million are in poverty. That’s between 15 to 16 percent of Americans. Sixteen million are children. Four million are elderly. The number of Americans living in poverty is now at a level not seen since the 1960s.
II. Hunger in America
Hunger is a massive problem. Though we live in the world’s wealthiest nation, almost 15% of us, nearly 49 million people, struggle to put food on the table. One in four children do not have consistent access to nutritious food.
Children are hit hard by hunger. Fifty-seven percent now live in low income or impoverished homes. The number of children living on $2.00 a day or less has grown to 2.8 million, a 130% increase since 1996. Over one million public school students are homeless, a 72% increase since the Great Recession.
The effects of hunger are greater on children. According to a 2011 , “Inadequate nutrition can permanently alter a child’s brain architecture and stunt their intellectual capacity, affecting the child’s learning, social interaction, and productivity.” Children who are hungry suffer poor health, fall behind in cognitive learning and suffer long term consequences.
Food stamps are a life saver. Forty-six million Americans are on food stamps, an increase of more than 14 million over the past four years. The Food Research and Action Center estimates that millions more are eligible but not receiving benefits. The average food stamp benefit is only four dollars a day.
One out of four children subsist using food stamps. Half of all children in American will be on food stamps at some time before they turn eighteen. The Food Stamp Program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), the National School Lunch Program, and other nutrition programs have helped to alleviate hunger. From Social Security to food stamps to the earned-income tax credit and on and on, we have enacted programs that keep 40 million people out of poverty. “Poverty would be nearly double what it is now without these measures, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.”
III Causes of Poverty
The causes of poverty vary. It’s often temporary. For most people it lasts a year or two. Losing a job, going through a divorce, or becoming ill or disabled can lead to a bout of poverty. Millions of workers and their families are vulnerable to small changes such as a slight decline in the number of hours per workweek or an extra few cents per gallon in the cost of gasoline. The elderly have been forced back to the bottom-of-the-economy due to the low dollar amount of their Social Security checks or the collapse in value of their investments following the events of 2008.
I work with the long term poor. Many who become too ill to work lose everything. That’s why the Affordable Care Act is so important. At least people cannot be bankrupted by medical bills. Though the cost of housing can eat up one’s saving quickly, too.
Many are older and have a difficult time finding work, especially if all their experience is manual labor. Others have illnesses that limit the type of work they can do. These include those who are intellectually challenged or who have a limited education. They have to compete for jobs anyone can do. Race plays a role. Twenty-seven percent of African-Americans, Latinos and American Indians are poor, versus ten percent of whites. And of course there those who have been their own worst enemy, spending much of their lives in prison such that no one will hire them, or they become addicted to drugs that render them incapable of working. Many facing these challenges have given up looking for work.
It’s fairly rare to find someone who just doesn’t want to work, though they do exist. Studies have shown that the poor share the same values and work ethic with most Americans. Most have worked and will do so again. Even for those who have shot themselves in the foot by not getting an education or going to prison, the system failed them early on.
We spend the least of all industrialized nations on anti-poverty programs. We do not provide universal health care, affordable child care, or low-income housing to address the problem. We are allowing wages to decline due to our favoritism to businesses and corporations. As a result, our poverty rate is twice that of Europe. Welfare reform and budget cuts continue to make matters worse.
As Mark R. Rank, professor of social welfare at Washington University and co-author of “Chasing the American Dream: Understanding What Shapes our Fortunes”, says:
“The solutions to poverty are to be found in what is important for the health of any family — having a job that pays a decent wage, having the support of good health and child care and having access to a first-rate education. Yet these policies will become a reality only when we begin to truly understand that poverty is an issue of us, rather than an issue of them.”
Our nation has more than enough resources to deal with poverty. What we’re lacking is political will and empathy. Normalizing child hunger and allowing a significant part of the labor force to work full-time or more and yet still be unable to pay basic bills is one of the great scandals of our age.
III. The Working Poor
The "working poor" is one of the fastest growing segments of the U.S. population. The quality of the jobs in America has been steadily dropping for years. Half the jobs in the nation pay less than $34,000 a year, according to the Economic Policy Institute. A quarter of American workers have jobs that pay $10 an hour or less.
Roughly 10.4 million people are counted as the "working poor.” The official poverty line is $11,484 for an individual or $23,021 for a family of four. More and more American workers are falling below that line. 
Low wages are the biggest problem. About 66 percent of the working poor fell below the poverty line at least in part because of low earnings. The largest group of working poor were in the service industry — 3.3 million, or 13.1 percent of all service workers. Other jobs with particularly high rates of poverty include farming, fishing, and forestry (17.1 percent) and construction and extraction (10.6 percent). According to the Working Poor Families Project, "about one-fourth of adults in low-income working families were employed in just eight occupations, as cashiers, cooks, health aids, janitors, maids, retail salespersons, waiters and waitresses, or drivers."
Poverty among the employed is increasing. Back in 2007, about 28 percent of all working families were considered to be among "the working poor". Today, that number is up to 32 percent. Back in 2007, 21 million U.S. children lived in "working poor" homes. Today, that number is up to 23.5 million.
The United States has a higher percentage of workers doing low wage work than any other major industrialized nation. Forty percent of all jobs in the United States are low income jobs. Half of all American workers earn $505 or less per week.
The US federal minimum wage stands at an abysmal $7.25 an hour, unchanged since 2009. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data for 2010, retail sales workers earned an average of $10.99 an hour, with a median annual income of $20,990. The average wage for janitors and building cleaners was just $10.68 an hour or $22,210 annually. Food service workers’ wages average just $8.72 an hour. Their median annual income is only $18,130. Agricultural workers earned $9.12an hour for a median of $18,870 annually.
The problem is expected to get worse. Of the job classifications expected to see the biggest growth in the coming period, many will pay poverty wages. A large proportion will be for unskilled work in the health care sector. Home health aide jobs are expected to increase 48.7 percent by 2016. They will pay an average of only $9.70 an hour or $20,100 annually. Meanwhile, job training programs are being scaled back or eliminated and tuition costs for higher education are skyrocketing.
IV. The Decline of the Middle Class
Our standard of living is in decline. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the middle class is taking home a smaller share of the overall income pie than has ever been recorded before. Wages for those who work on jobs in the bottom half have been stuck since 1973, increasing just 7 percent. Half of all jobs pay less than $34,000 a year.
Median household income has fallen five years in a row. Median household income for families with children fell $6,300 between 2001 and 2011. Millions of Americans are at the “living wage” threshold. They earn too much to qualify for most government assistance programs but are too poor to make ends meet. They work at jobs that provide few or no benefits and are perpetually at risk of falling into devastating debt. Over 20 million spend more than half of their incomes on housing. That represents a 46 percent increase since 2001. In 1989, the debt to income ratio of the average American family was about 58 percent. Today it is 154 percent.
V. Economic Inequality
Throughout all of this the gap between the rich and poor is growing. Corporate profits as a percentage of GDP are at an all-time high. Wages as a percentage of GDP are near an all-time low. The average CEO now makes approximately 350 times as much as the average American worker.
Most of our nation’s economic growth went to the top one percent. The U.S. ranks third among all the advanced economies in income inequality. The one percent take home nearly a quarter of the country's income, the highest share since 1928.
It is unacceptable for billionaires to pay capital gains tax at a rate far lower than the income tax that middle-class Americans pay. The wealthy earn their living off investments. In other words, they don’t work for a living. It’s unacceptable that the estate tax has been so eviscerated that only a few thousand estates per year are subject to taxes when nearly one in four children live in poverty.
We know what we need to do. Make the rich pay their fair share of running the country, raise the minimum wage, provide health care and a decent safety net, and the like. The rich benefit the most from the system and should therefore bare a larger share of the burden.
Instead, Representatives like Paul Ryan insist on cutting taxes for thewealthy and eliminating regulations that protect consumers and, as we have seen, citizens from the abuse of the financial system. Meanwhile these same politicians insist on devastating cuts to programs that serve millions of Americans, including Social Security and Medicare, education, healthcare, and all the programs that help lift regular people up.
When the author of 2 Thessalonians says those unwilling to work should not eat, he means that those who deceive and defraud should not receive financial support. He’s speaking of con-artists who steal from others. Like the banks who sold bad investments then bet against their customers. Mortgage brokers who put homebuyers into loans they knew the buyer couldn’t pay back. Stock brokerages who demand less regulation then trade on inside information. The wealthy who live off their investments then demand lower tax rates then the rest of us. Corporations who resist fair wages, move jobs overseas, use their money and power to influence politicians and elections then pay low wages and use loopholes to avoid paying taxes. Those who crashed our economy then required billions of dollars to bail them out due their own malfeasance. Politicians, corporations, and the wealthy that demand tax cuts while taking subsidies, cutting spending on social programs, and shutting the government down in order to exact even more concessions. These of the one of whom the author speaks. These are the idle that live off the labor of others. These are the ones who should not eat.
The Author of 2 Thessalonians is reversing what Jesus said. Jesus said “the laborer deserves to be paid” and “laborers deserve their food”. [Luke 10:7 and Matthew 10:10] If “those unwilling to work should not eat”, then the reverse is also true: those who work should eat.
When we see Americans workers being unable to feed their families, we should be asking why? When we see wages in decline, we should be asking how we can get our country back on track. From generation to generation, our nation has seen our standard of living increase. We have always worked to make Americans richer, not poorer. We have always sought to make Americans better off, not worse. When we see Americans living on $2 a day, when we see hunger and poverty growing, when we see wages stagnant, when we see the rich getting richer at the expense of the rest of us, we have to work to reverse these trends.
The corporations and the wealthy, those in power, the “job creators” have always wanted cheap labor. They put downward pressure on wages by opposing unions, the minimum wage, fair labor standards, social services and taxes. They want a labor force desperate for money. They ship jobs overseas to find people willing to work for subsistence wages, no more or even less than it would cost to keep up a slave. They live off the backs of the working poor. They make money off of other’s people’s labor. They become rich off of other people’s work. They are the ones unwilling to earn their keep. They are the ones unwilling to put in an honest day’s work.
We should be working to reverse the decline in wages and our standard of living, but instead we see right wing politicians working to cut services to the poor. They recently cut food stamps at a time when hunger and poverty are growing at astounding rates. They oppose increasing the minimum wage at a time when millions of working people are living in poverty. They cut taxes for the wealthy and corporations while half of all Americans are low wage earners or less. Then they threaten not to create jobs if we tax them or regulate them, but their wealth depends upon our labor.
These policies push Americans down. These policies don’t create jobs, they create poverty. They create an ever widening gap between the rich and the poor, more money for the top and less for the rest of us. This is exactly what the corporations and wealthy want, and it won’t end until we stand up and stop it.