“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
“Tell us, then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
In sociology we read the classic 1970’s book Worlds of Pain, by Lillian Rubin. In it she examines minutely the lives of the working-poor, that tenuous existence of people just clinging to the necessities of American life. They are the factory workers, grocery-baggers, beauticians, welders, and construction workers; in essence, all the people who make our middle-class lives possible. She detailed their lives from marriage, which usually occurred right out of high school, to their experiences and feelings after years of marriage and four or five children—which, for many, can range from age twenty-five to thirty-five. Most of these people own cars and houses, and some have bought campers or boats, yet their lives are marked by the perpetual struggle to pay bills on time, to keep creditors at bay, to maintain the illusion of affluence – or, at the very least, “success.” These people, suffice it to say, labor greatly to “survive,” and to them we have devoted a share of our sociology class.
Learning about class inequalities, our professor emphasized the disparity between those who own the majority of the wealth and everybody else. She offered typically staggering statistics in which a mere fraction of a percent of the population held vast tracts of “wealth,” so that “everybody else” found themselves scrabbling for the remaining 15% of the available assets. We talked about the estimated 20% of Americans who struggle to earn the government’s conservative survival wage, something around $12,500 per year or so (from memory; I may be mistaken) to support a family of three or four. How terrible!, we learned, terrible that these people suffer, struggle, toil to merely scrape by in America today! The heavy-handed implication I absorbed: we must do something to raise this lowest class from its bottom-rung status, for the inequality must end somehow.
Yet… some questions occur, because when I think of moving the poorest class up to the next-poorest class, that leaves a vacant spot. But we won’t think of it as vacant: the next-poorest class will simply take its place as our poorest-of-the-poor, and so on. Said another way, moving up the poor leaves them still the poorest. Think of it as the traditional way of choosing who bats first in a street-game of baseball: start placing your hands alternately, first one player then the other, stacking hands and removing the lowest hand to put it on top. Once the lowest-down hand has been removed, the hand just above it suddenly is on the bottom. Or again, say you have a list of numbers: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Currently 1 is the smallest number, but if you removed 1 would there still be a smallest number? Yes, 2 would replace it, even if 2 is slightly larger than 1. Thus it is with “raising” the poor out of their position. Now don’t take this wrong: I’m all for everybody making a decent amount of money, having good food on the table, and paying bills without scrimping.
But I cannot see how we can remove the class system we have right now. Even if everybody earned a minimum of $150,000 a year, those people would be the poorest. I’m guessing that prices would rise to match, and we would not have eliminated the poorest of the poor anymore: as they move up, they simply raise the definition lowest, but remain at the bottom. It is impossible to remove the poorest class in a capitalist society because a) Everybody competes for status, even the poorest, so they spend money they do not have (boats, campers, TVs) and will always be in debt if prices rise to match incomes; b) Everything continues to move up with everybody comparing themselves to people below and above them – we need people below us to compare to. Those people currently on the bottom have nobody, but as they move up the ladder either they surpass some people who replace them or the whole scale simply moves up. So poor would be defined not as a 3 person family subsisting on $12,000/year but a family of 3 earning an income of $100,000 a year… or whatever.
Thinking about this confuses me however, because isn’t it possible that I have overlooked another possible path for the society to take? Also it’s confusing trying to think of these things—rather like thinking about the fact that in Terminator, if the soldier had not been sent back by his son to save his mother, the son would never have been born to send the soldier back…
– KF –