This morning, as I do every workday, I rode my bike through downtown Washington, DC, past the White House and up Capitol Hill to The Methodist Building where I work. As I stood in the lobby waiting for the elevator (and waiting to regain feeling in my rather frosted fingers), I read again the words of the 1908 Social Creed posted on our wall, proudly proclaiming the Methodist Episcopal Church’s stance in support of “work for all” and “a living wage in every industry.”
Most days these words remind me how blessed I am to be part of a church – and an ecumenical movement – that continues the work handed down to us by generations of faithful servants struggling for economic justice.
And yet some days, like today, these words taunt me.
How is it possible that one hundred and five years later we have failed to live into this vision as a church, much less sufficiently challenged the systems and structures that prevent this vision from being realized in the world? How can it be that in the midst of the greatest jobs crisis since the Great Depression, with millions unemployed and millions more underemployed, our leaders in the hallowed halls I had just ridden past seem more concerned with cutting spending and protecting privilege than building community and more justly sharing prosperity?
This week’s conversation is focused on a faithful federal budget. And I should begin with a confession: I am an unabashed budget nerd. When I worked in the US House of Representatives, the day the President submitted his budget to Congress was like Christmas morning for me. I would wake up around 4:30 am and scramble to the office to be the first to unwrap the shiny new volumes of charts and projections and appendices that comprised the President’s budget. And while I spent countless hours getting lost in the grids and graphs and historical tables, I grew to appreciate the document for what it really was – a statement of who and what we value as a community.
Now, having worked for the last twenty years on the budget in various roles and from various perspectives – as a Congressional aide, a budget associate, a corporate lobbyist and now a faith-based advocate – I am concerned that the debates we have over budget priorities not only fail to reflect our collective values, but now fail even to connect with the most pressing challenges of our time.
We are living through the deepest and longest jobs crisis since the Great Depression. According to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the official count is 12.3 million men and women unemployed with a staggering 4.7 million of our brothers and sisters having been out of work for over 27 weeks. That is more than six months – and for many over a year – without steady income to shelter, clothe, and feed a family.
And yet, our elected leaders’ conversation about the budget seems wholly disconnected from this painful reality. Focused on numbers and statistics rather than the names and stories behind them, our sound-bite-driven political system has little room for the intimate and complicated realities of the people to whom we are called to be in ministry with and among. As our brothers and sisters struggle to find meaningful and sustainable employment and cope with the debilitating effects of joblessness on themselves and their families, we must raise their voices and their reality as central to any conversation about our collective priorities.
Just in the last month, as the media published stories on wage stagnation, workers raiding retirement savings to pay current bills and analyses that the few jobs being created are paying less than poverty wages, many have shrugged them off as somehow inevitable in this troubled economy. I fear we have so bought into the notion of scarcity that is being peddled – mostly by those who have plenty – that we fail to recognize its fallacy, ask faithful questions and embrace God’s economy of abundance.
Last year, my office embarked on an organizing initiative in a number of states across the country working with local congregations engaged in ministry with the unemployed, underemployed, and the unjustly employed. From jobs clubs in Florida to walk-in ministries in rural Appalachia, we encountered Christ’s followers answering His call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and shelter their neighbors in need. And everywhere we travelled I heard two common themes. First was the acknowledgement that the greatest anti-poverty program is a good-paying job. And second was the question: “when will our elected leaders join us in this work?”
On some level, elected officials understand that the still-sputtering economy and unconscionably high unemployment rate is at or near the top of the list of our collective concerns. In the seemingly endless crush of campaign ads, candidates across the country pledged to fix the economy and create millions of new jobs. But once the votes were counted, the conversation immediately pivoted back to “fixing the deficit,” and imposing austerity measures either through action (a grand bargain cutting entitlement spending and raising taxes) or inaction (sequestration and the so-called ‘fiscal cliff’).
Either path leads to the same end – a reduction in spending that threatens our already fragile economic recovery and ignores the pressing needs of our brothers and sisters who lack good paying jobs.
The reality is that government policies and spending can alleviate the suffering of the millions lacking meaningful employment. Recall how quickly the critics of spending who so often repeated the mantra that government “cannot create jobs,” reversed course amid proposed cuts to military spending at the end of last year. Suddenly they became the loudest voices warning of massive job losses that would result from a cut to spending. Consistency is a rare commodity in Washington, DC.
So how do we reconnect policy conversations with the reality of our communities? And more generally, where do we find hope and energy to continue the struggle to secure good jobs for all?
I am often reminded of the quote by Walter Brueggemann in his book Prophetic Imagination: “It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination to keep on conjuring and proposing alternative futures to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.”
In the midst of the dominant narrative about austerity and deficit reduction and a single-minded focus on ‘balancing the budget’ as though the grandest purpose of government is to achieve a row of zeroes at the bottom of a ledger – we must as faithful followers of Christ keep raising the concerns of the last, the least and the lost and propose alternatives to this flawed proposition. If we agree that it is unacceptable to allow millions to suffer without meaningful work or to struggle making poverty wages in unjust working conditions then we must demand an alternative. Our current economy is not a divine construct but one created by humankind, controlled by policies and decisions we embrace individually and collectively. And while the economy too often has been manipulated by a few at the expense of the many, we must recognize and reclaim our power to reorient it towards the needs of all.
Lifting our voices and challenging the current narrative of scarcity and forced-austerity is critical to building an economy that values work and honors the dignity of all workers. That is why our interfaith Faithful Budget Campaign places ‘restoring economic opportunity’ atop our list of principles for a faithful federal budget. Understanding that we “need an economy that empowers workers to self sufficiency and provides pathways out of poverty,” our community has called on Congress to “make the long-term investments needed to sustain the United States’ economic renewal, create economic opportunity for all, and work toward ending poverty. This requires investments in high-quality affordable education, sustainable jobs with living wages, and policies that help families to build assets.”
Connecting mercy and justice – living the fullness of Micah 6:8 as we love kindness and do justice in our humble walk with God – that remains my bedrock of hope in these challenging times. When faith voices lift up our alternate vision and are heard as frequently in the corridors of power as the professional lobbyists protecting their power and privilege, then change will come and our elected leaders will join us just as we join God in seeking peace and prosperity in our communities.
So tomorrow morning, as I thaw out under the copy of the 1908 Social Creed, I will read again its vision of justice. And this time, recalling those who have walked before us and with faith in a God who walks alongside us, I will read those words with hope and a renewed commitment to this sacred work of creating a just economy for all.
John Hill serves as the Director for Economic and Environmental Justice at The United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society. A graduate of the University of Virginia, he has worked on economic policy issues for twenty years in Washington as a congressional aide, lobbyist and faith advocate. He can be reached at jhill [at] umc-gbcs [dot] org.