Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Hard Day's Work

I've been challenged by all of Gandhi's Social Sins - but this particular one about Wealth without Work has really captured me. Perhaps it's because I was thinking about this long before I saw the poster that clued me in to the Mahatma's list.

The US seems to be in a quandary when it comes to social services. We want to help those people who don't have enough to eat or a safe place to sleep or anyone to address their health problems - at the same time we do seem to have created a system of generational dependence.

Some argue, and it's easy to agree, that we've separated the fulfillment of our basic needs from real work. However, when I begin to think of the logical and theological implications of that idea, it just doesn't cut the mustard.

First, if a visceral understanding that the daily work you do is directly connected to your survival is paramount, there's just as many people well-off enough to never fit into the category. My family makes less than $50,000 a year, but we'd have at least a few months without income before we began to worry about food and housing (even then it wouldn't be an issue as we have plenty of equally capable and willing family and friends who would help us survive. The connection between wealth and work goes both ways.

Secondly, it just doesn't fit with a Christian understanding that our work doesn't earn us anything. God gives us what we have and everything we have is God's. That's pretty paramount. That is the reason for Sabbath. We need to be reminded that our wealth and our work are not connected - as much as it may seem so. Don't believe me? There's millions of people around the world who work twice as hard as you or I who still can't feed their family or provide decent housing.

What then do we do? How do we address the real relationship between wealth and work if it's not a direct correlation? I've been puzzling on this and I have an idea. It might be crazy, but hear me out:

What if work is not just a responsibility, but also a right?

There are some basic rights. Everyone pretty much acknowledges that. Whether you subscribe to the US Declaration of Independence's "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness," a more general "respect and dignity," or a very specific list - we all tend to agree that society (not necessarily government) owes something to people.

What if one of those things was a hard day's work?

No one wants a life of backbreaking labor, but there is something emotionally, spiritually, and physically profitable in exercising your mind and/or body in pursuit of a goal. People need to be engaged in something meaningful.

Both the left and the right seem to fall short of this understanding. The Left (and I know I'm generalizing here) seems to view work as a luxury and the Right seems to view it solely as a responsibility. In a sense, they're both correct, but they miss the bigger picture.

During the Depression, the government was feeding and clothing and housing a lot of people - but they also came up with public benefit projects where they put people to work. The work didn't cover the benefits economically, but it kept people hopeful and invested. I know our economics are a little different today (if the government hired people at minimum wage or less to work on National Park improvements, the construction industry would be rightfully upset), but the notion is praiseworthy and I suspect the creativity exists to figure something out.

I've often been accused of hating efficiency. I'm certainly not a fan of it as an unquestioned proposition, but I do think efficiency is a valuable tool. I think about how much more land one farmer can farm now - an area that would have taken a dozen people fifty years ago can be cultivated by one. That's great. But is it less great if only half of those other eleven found meaningful work to replace farming?

Again, these are more theoretical questions than practical. I'm not an expert and thus you won't get genius ideas. I've been trained to think, ask questions, and see the world differently. I'm also committed to optimism. I believe all things are possible. Gandhi did, too.

I am convinced that the creativity exists to see everyone engaged in meaningful work - just as I'm convinced the creativity exists to get everyone clean water. I think our collective life depends on it.

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