Monday, July 6, 2009

The Economic Crisis: A Report From Below

The Economic Crisis: A Report From Below

It’s still dark outside as people begin lining up at the back entrance to the labor hall, which opens at four-thirty in the morning. The people are day laborers. And, if they are hired out to work today, the odds are that the jobs they will be doing will be dirty and very physically demanding—especially when the temperatures are in the triple digits.

If Bill Gates is on the top of the economic ladder, then the day laborer is on the bottom. Ever since ancient times, the day laborer—one who is unskilled in a trade, and who does a day’s work for a day’s pay—has been considered the lowest member of the working class. Even the New Testament includes a parable, spoken by Christ, that makes use of the common practice of hiring day laborers, which Christ uses as a simile for the kingdom of heaven: “For the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard” (Matthew 20:1; see 20:1-16).

The good economic news is that there are a lot of people who are willing to work—very hard—for the money that they need to survive. The bad news is that there just isn’t that much work out there these days. This, in itself, is certainly not news (we all know the economy’s bad) but, from the lowly perspective of the day laborer, the economic situation appears to be worsening. There are a lot more people at the labor halls these days, a lot less jobs, and there are more new faces here every day—all of them hoping to be sent out on a job that will put a much needed fifty dollars or so in their pockets at the end of the day.

Working day labor is a last resort for many people, and, when your last resort isn’t working out so well, there are few legitimate options remaining to which one can turn to in order to generate a much needed income. If you’re wondering why the recidivism rates are so high for ex-cons, you need look no further. Most of the workers here at the labor hall desire to work a regular job, but, for a variety of reasons, many of them also have a very low employability status (e.g., poor employment history, criminal background) which hinders them from being hired by many (most?) businesses—especially during periods of high unemployment.
This economic report from below is a discouraging one. The economic outlook is bleak, especially in the construction industry, and it’s the construction industry that provides so many of the jobs the day laborers need. If you think the economic situation looks bad on the news, it looks even worse from the perspective of the day laborer who, though willing to work hard, doesn’t know from one day to the next whether he will be working (and earning money) or not.

There will always be a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship between the poor and the wealthy: those who are wealthy will always hire those who are poor, and those who are poor will always work for those who are wealthy. And when the wealthy (and the middle-class) are hurting financially, as they are today, the poor are guaranteed to be hurting even more, because they have so much less. Today the day laborer hopes for the wealthy business owner to hire him out, yet the business owner, who is also feeling the economic pinch, simply doesn’t have enough work for him.

In the parable mentioned above, the householder—throughout the course of the day—puts many laborers to work in his vineyard, and he pays all of them the same daily wage, whether they had worked for one hour, two hours, or the entire day. In the parable, those who had worked all day long were angry with the householder for paying those who had worked only an hour or two, or a half day, a full day’s pay even though they had not worked a full day. The wealthy householder (who, in the parable, represents God) chastised those who were angry with him and upbraided one of them, saying: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius [i.e., a day’s wage]? Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”

Through this parable, Christ is showing us how, by having a compassionate and generous heart, one can actually help to bring about the kingdom of God on earth, which is a compassionate world wherein people care more about one another than they do money. From personal experience, I know that some of the business owners who hire out day laborers, like myself, will occasionally demonstrate the same generous and compassionate spirit as that of the householder spoken of in the parable (i.e., that of caring more about people than money) by paying the laborer for a full day’s work even though they have not worked for a full day.
These are tough economic times indeed—the ranks of the poor are growing and the portfolios of the wealthy are shrinking—which can mean only one thing: we are all in this economic mess together, and we will only get through it together if we are willing to act, from a generous heart, with compassion for one another. Although economics may seem like a rather heartless subject, economics is really about people, about community, and about how we choose to live together in a society (the word: economy actually comes from two Greek words: ecos, meaning: house, and nomos, meaning: law, and literally means: the law of the house).

How we choose to act toward one another is crucial to how we will get through this economic crisis. In other words, the best economic indicator of all is to ask ourselves this one, simple question each and every day: Did I act with compassion and generosity toward people today? If the answer is yes, then we can be assured that, however slowly, we are definitely on the economic upswing. But if the answer is no, then the economic downturn will only worsen, and there will be darker days ahead of us. If we really want to get out of this economic mess, we are going to have to be willing to share what we have with those who are less fortunate than we are. Whenever we give, willingly, from a generous heart, we will always gain far more than we have lost.
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