In a Dark Time, Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win!
A sermon by the Rev. Connie Yost
First, I want to say that I know many of you are concerned about the recent election and what it may mean for the future of our country, our democracy, and our people. I share your anxiety and disbelief. November 9 was especially hard for me because in the midst of what I thought was the impossible happening, a very good friend of mine passed away. So I, too, am reeling from a world seemingly turned upside down and very dark.
My topic for this sermon - inequality - which I had been planning all along, is even more crucial and timely today. I wish I could say that we have some reason for hope that policies with this new administration and Congress will work for the good of all people, especially those in poverty. But I cannot say that I see much chance of that.
What I do hope is that we can turn our disbelief, our outrage, our fear and our anxieties into a renewed commitment to work for justice. This is my prayer and my hope, and I hope that you will join me in this.
What this election has made clear to me is the deep disenfranchisement of working people who have experienced the downward effects of the last decades of our economic policies. In a very sad way it comes as no surprise that someone outside the political system, making promises to restore jobs and communities to some past idyllic time, would appeal to so many.
I can only hope that when it becomes clear that new policies have made things even worse, that more Americans will stand up and fight for justice.
We cannot ignore the fact that a white man who brazenly trumpeted his xenophobic, sexist and racist beliefs won this election. It is not all about our failed economic policies. For some, it was the backlash against eight years of a black man in the Presidency. For some, it was the fear of a woman in the Presidency. And surely it was also the rush of white America to find someone to blame.
I was here last month visiting Bend when the journalist Katherine Boo spoke as part of the library foundation literary series. She spoke movingly and showed pictures of the children and people she got to know who live in a slum near the Mumbai airport. She outlined four reasons for their poverty: inequality, corruption, political control and globalization.
In a world of TV and cell phones, other people’s wealth is “tantalizing visible.” One young man, reflecting on the increasingly glamorous Mumbai airport and the airport hotels said, ”Everything around us is roses. . . .And we’re the shit in between.”
Boo writes of how wealthy Indians want to increasingly limit government social welfare. For these Indians, Boo points out, “private security was hired, city water was filtered, private school tuitions were paid. Such choices had evolved over the years into a principle: The best government is the one that gets out of the way.”
Pankaj Mishra writes in a book review for the New York Times that
“Boo describes what happens when opportunity accrues to the already privileged in the age of globalization, governments remain dysfunctional and corrupt, and, with most citizens locked into a fantasy of personal wealth and consumption, hope, too, is privatized, sundered from any notions of collective well-being.
In this sense, [Boo’s book] Behind the Beautiful Forevers is not just about India… For as Boo writes, “what was unfolding in Mumbai was unfolding elsewhere, too” — in Nairobi and Santiago, Washington and New York. “In the age of global market capitalism, hopes and grievances were narrowly conceived, which blunted a sense of common predicament.
“The poor,” she explains further, “blame one another for the choices of governments and markets, and we who are not poor are ready to blame the poor just as harshly.” Meanwhile, only “the faintest ripple” is created “in the fabric of the society at large,” for in places like Mumbai, “the gates of the rich . . . remained unbreached, . . . the poor took down one another, and the world’s great, unequal cities soldiered on in relative peace.”
And so Boo, in highlighting the poor in Mumbai, shines a light on our predicament here in the United States as well. And though it seems impossible that the richest country in world could ever end up with the kind of grinding poverty seen in other countries, I think we would be wise to wake up to an economic reality right here that is already leaving millions in poverty with millions more headed that way.
But let’s define our terms first. The 2016 federal poverty guideline for a single mother of two is $20,160. The minimum wage here in Bend, Oregon is $9.75 per hour. Let us assume our mother is lucky enough to work 40 hours per week, every week of the year. That is 2,080 hours times $9.75 equals $20,280 per year. That just barely makes her above the poverty line.
But the amount of money it actually takes to live here in Deschutes County for our mother with her two children is actually $27.87 per hour, or almost $58,000 per year. So our mother is short over $37,000!! In fact, MIT has calculated that the only professions that would pay enough for this single mother to adequately support herself and her two children would be the ones that require a good deal of education: management, finance, computers and math, and the higher level jobs in healthcare and the legal profession.
So you can see that people can make twice the federal poverty guideline rates, and STILL struggle to make ends meet. Here in Oregon, poverty peaked after the Great Recession to an all-time high of 17.5%. It has come down slightly, to 15.4% in 2015. That translates to 607,000 Oregonians living in poverty in 2015. But most horrifying is that 6.9% of all Oregonians are living in deep poverty, -- that is, they are living below 50% of the federal poverty guidelines. That could be our single mother with her two children, who works a minimum wage job but cannot get full time hours. She easily could be in deep poverty, earning less than $10,140 per year.
I have worked to support and advocate for farm workers for a long time now, who historically have been paid less than minimum wage, and are subject to all sorts of workplace safety violations, sexual harassment, intimidation and general exploitation. I hate to say it but there has not been a huge outcry over their plight in all the years since Cesar Chavez led the farm worker movement in California in the 1960’s. There are signs of hope now in the Fair Food Movement that started with the tomato picking farm workers in Florida. There’s even a slogan now, “Did you eat today? Thank a farm worker.” which might remind people how their food got to the store. But overall, because farm work came out of slavery and has always been done primarily by poor people of color—hidden from view-- our collective eyes glaze over when their plight is brought up. Are these the poor that are “always with us,” the ones we can too easily accept?
So what about these other poor folk, the 607,000 Oregonians that are quite poor, and the half of all Oregonians with household income below the median of $54,148, many of whom also struggle to make ends meet when even in rural Oregon, a family of four needs an income of about $57,000 per year to be considered economically secure?
We know that it is not just the poor people – the shocking 1 in 5 children that live in poverty in Oregon, or the fact that almost 30% of all people of color live in poverty in Oregon – it is that we have seen that our middle class people are suffering as well.
President Obama said in his famous speech on the economy in 2011 that
“This is the defining issue of our time. This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and for all those who are fighting to get into the middle class. Because what’s at stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, secure their retirement.”
And that is what is not happening. Many folks cannot earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, and secure their retirement. Now with typically two-wage earner families, there still is not enough money for all of that. Elizabeth Warren, who has done a lot of work highlighting the plight of the middle class, points out that two wage earners are necessary now, and not because people are spending frivolously. No, we need two wage earners per family because housing costs have skyrocketed, because of childcare costs, because even with insurance healthcare costs are way up, and our young people are saddled with massive student loan debt. And we have seen job polarization – the growth of high-wage jobs, which is great for the economy, but not so great is the loss of those middle-wage jobs which have been replaced with low-wage jobs. The Oregon Office of Economic Analysis released a statement on that dark day after the election stating that
“… after adjusting for inflation, wages are actually lower today than back in the 1970s and even early 1980s. And these trends apply to manufacturing overall, at least outside of the tech sector….These job losses have resulted in income declines for both men and women without college degrees, who replace those jobs with lower-wage jobs, or simply stop looking for a job at all.”
It is frightening folks. This same report says that “…poverty overall has yet to decline outside of the Portland metro area, and broader Willamette Valley. While our office expects to see some improvements provided the current expansion continues, poverty has essentially been rising since the late 1990s. And in parts of the Timber Belt, poverty has been rising since the 1980s.”
What do we do? Wait for it to come to our family? I daresay it has already come to a number of families. Recently I was shocked to hear my nephew say that he and his wife have not had kids yet because they are worried that they cannot afford it! Here is a college-educated couple in their mid-thirties, both with good jobs, who suffer from the kind of economic anxiety I do not remember ever having.
People hope and pray that they do not lose their job or suffer an illness or accident, which are the leading causes of bankruptcy and lower income today. A recent article in the Atlantic stated that “It is estimated that nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency.” And woe to those who do not have their own safety net, as governmental safety net programs like welfare and unemployment insurance are eroded.
In Divided: The Perils of Our Growing Inequality, David Cay Johnston reports that “among developed countries only Romania has a larger share of its children in poverty [than the United States]…Food banks report that their shelves often go bare before the lines of people are served and that most of their new customers since 2008 are married couples with children who used to have two jobs and now have none. To people accustomed to a pantry full of food and a refrigerator with not enough shelf space for everything that comes home from the grocery store, this may be hard to grasp. Yet one in every fifty-two people you meet today, statistically, has no income except food stamps. In reality, however, it is possible to live a lifetime and not know any one of the 6 million Americans who now depend entirely on food stamps to survive, because we are so economically segregated.”
Joseph Stiglitz writes in The Price of Inequality, “The simple story of America is this: the rich are getting richer, the richest of the rich are getting still richer, the poor are becoming poorer and more numerous, and the middle class is being hollowed out. The incomes of the middle class are stagnating or falling, and the difference between them and the truly rich is increasing.”
And so, my friends, it is up to us to do something about this. Do not wait to see if anything will improve legislatively on the federal level – I am confident it will not. We cannot afford to sit around and lay blame on the corporations, the gridlocked Congress, the elites, etc. We just cannot afford to sit around. Period. This election should be a huge wake-up call to all of us. And though some of our policies in Oregon are more progressive than in other states, we, too have a long way to go in addressing inequality and poverty.
Each of us, whether economically doing OK or not, need to come together NOW to form a movement that will make economic policies that work for working people. Especially needed immediately are policies related to labor and housing. Read Stiglitz’s book and in the last chapter he offers a comprehensive list of what needs to happen. It is a long, long list, I am sorry to say. Here’s a few: We need things like tax reform so the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share. We need to improve access to education. We need to restore and maintain full employment— with equality. We need health care for all. Remember, the two most important sources of economic trauma for an American family are the loss of a job and an illness. We need to strengthen other social protection programs, like unemployment and welfare. We need affirmative action, to eliminate the legacy of discrimination, and strong laws prohibiting discrimination. We need campaign finance reform. And more….
And we need to offer sanctuary, a safe haven, and a civil discourse to everyone. James Hollis, a Jungian analyst, writes that “The more mature the personality structure, the greater the capacity of the person, and the culture, to tolerate the anxiety, ambiguity, and ambivalence that are a necessary and unavoidable dimension of our lives. A culture that is immature, and believes its values besieged, will fall back into a siege mentality, a sentimental nostalgia for a simpler time, for simplistic black-and-white value judgments, and will project its own shadow by vilifying others.”
Do what you can to get to know the people who are struggling in your community. Do not expect them to come to you – go to them, go to the organizations who know these people, and give of your time and talents to their leadership. Listen to the people’s stories. The best organizations support the leadership and organization of the people themselves. And though more and more charity will likely be needed as more people fall through the cracks, we also need to focus on advocacy for the economic policies that work for working people.
In Mumbai, you have to take a wrong turn out of the airport to see the slum Boo writes about. All around are five star hotels with beautiful rose gardens. As Boo saw in Mumbai, the poor are blamed for their plight and they in turn internalize it as shame. “We’re the shit in between” the young man said. The poor in this country – women, children, and people of color, and now increasingly the former middle class of all colors – have certainly been blamed for their troubles, and punished by the lack of policies that help them.
We have the means to eliminate poverty and inequality. We have programs that have helped alleviate poverty for the elderly and the disabled – Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. My friend who died on that dark day after the election was poor; she was elderly and disabled, but luckily there were programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid which provided her with a safety net. Surely all people deserve a safety net more than corporations and stockholders deserve a free ride.
The future of this country does not lie in the hands of our leaders, corporations or wealthy elites: it lies with us. I challenge you as a community of faith to 1) educate yourselves about poverty in your community; 2) pledge financial support to at least one charity organization; 3) adopt a list of legislative economic advocacy priorities – local, state and national – and join with others to advocate for these policies; and 4) think big, think communal – what else can we do? House the homeless? Provide childcare for the working families? Provide quality preschool for low-income children? Organize free medical and dental clinics? Help pay the medical and utility bills? Organize a car pool of drivers to help people keep their appointments? Provide assistance with tenant leases, evictions, safety issues and the like? Think about it: What more can we do?
Take good care, friends. Take care of yourself, honoring all that is within you that grieves, worries about the future, and perhaps feels shame or blame about being poor or being OK when so many others are not.
Now, after our time of mourning, let us heed the words of Dorothy Day:
No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless.
There’s too much work to do.
Amen and blessed be.
 New York Times Sunday Book Review, Fighting for Scraps, By Pankaj Mishra, Feb. 9, 2012
 The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, Remarks by the President on the Economy in Osawatomie, Kansas, December 06, 2011.
Oregon Office of Economic Analysis blog, Economic Anxiety in Oregon, November 9, 2016, https://oregoneconomicanalysis.com/
 Gabler, Neal, The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans, The Atlantic, May 2016
 Johnston, David Cay, Divided: The Perils of Our Growing Inequality. New Press, Kindle Edition, location 244.
 Stiglitz, Joseph E. The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future (p. 7). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
 Hollis, James. Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally, Really Grow Up (Kindle Locations 2219-2222). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Copyright 2016 Constance B. Yost. All rights reserved.