Where Logic Meets Love

When You Say "Get a Job"...

Sunday, November 20, 2011

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When You Say

Dear conservative CEOs, business owners, managers, and those who support them and vote with them*,

Let me ask you a question.

A person comes to interview at your place of business.

He is not dressed in proper business attire, because he doesn't know what that is. No one ever taught him.

He is learning disabled but never received any help overcoming it. He has vision problems but could never afford glasses. As a result, he is barely literate.

He had to drop out of school in 8th grade to help care for his single mother when she became ill and they had no insurance to cover her medical costs. They went bankrupt paying her medical bills. The bank foreclosed on their house.

So he has no permanent address right now. He hasn't showered in a few days.

Would you hire him?

If you had to fill a position and it was between him and a well-educated, well-spoken, well-dressed, well-prepared candidate, would you hire him?

.
.
.

No?

Then let me ask you another question.

When you see this man on the street, asking for money, why do you tell him, "Get a job"?

When you see him protesting the broken systems of this country, why do you tell him, "Get a job"?

If you won't hire him, why should someone else?

.
.
.

Let's try something else.

Let's go back 15 years and give a little bit of the money going toward educating wealthier children to his school instead.

Let's give his school the means to hire more teachers so he's in a smaller class, where someone notices that he's struggling. His learning disability and vision problems are diagnosed.

Let's put some government money toward getting him a free pair of glasses.

Let's help his family get health insurance so when his mother gets ill, he's able to stay in school. He goes on to the high school, where he's encouraged to go to a free program that will help him learn how to apply for jobs, how to dress for interviews, how to act in the workplace.

Let's prevent the bank from foreclosing on the house while his mother is unable to work. When she gets well again, she goes back to work and finishes paying the mortgage.

But, you say, that's socialism! That's handouts! How will he ever learn the meaning of hard work if you're giving him everything! The people in those wealthy areas pay high taxes to have their children go to good schools -- how could you take any of that money away for this other school? And telling the banks how to do their jobs? Get big government out of business!

Fine. Let's do nothing.

Except now we're back to that interview. And this time, you're choosing between two candidates, and they're both uneducated, they both have health problems, they're both homeless, and neither one was taught how to hold a job.

Do you want to bank on there always being great employees out there for you to hire?

Or would you rather help make this a nation where we create as many great employees as we possibly can?

It's your choice.

"Then the King will say to those on His right, 'Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me....Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.'" (Matthew 25:34-36,40)

America is broken right now. We need to stop fearing the Other. To stop making short-sighted decisions out of a desire to cover our own butts. To stop clinging to the status quo and hoping everything will wash out in the end.

Because in the end, it's only us and God. And we don't want to suddenly find ourselves the Other, the unwanted, in God's sight, because we failed to care about those who weren't as privileged as ourselves.

*Obviously not everyone in this category fits this description. But to the many it does, and those not named, this needs to be said. And I realize most of readers of this blog already understand much of this, but I invite you to share it if you agree.

24 comments:

  1. It does not follow from your final dilemma that government should take from people to give to others. Businesses will train people when they need to.

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  2. @ryantm.com
    So what you're saying is that you believe it makes more sense for a business owner to try to make up for 12 years (or less) of poor education through training than to give up a little bit of money now to ensure that everyone can have an adequate education?

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  3. I agree with you Jessica! There are exactly the same problems here in the UK. We do have the NHS for the healthcare side of things, although it's currently under considerable financial pressure, but there are definitely huge problems in the education system as well as more poverty than our nation cares to recognise. Thank you for writing about it so clearly and passionately.

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  4. @Fire Fairy
    Thanks! It's frustrating to me that these problems are so widespread. But the more people we can get talking and thinking about them, the better.

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  5. @ryantm.com
    I would add as well that some businesses simply don't have the resources to provide the extensive training needed for someone who was never taught things as basic as that you have to come to work at a certain time every day. Or that if you get paid on Friday, you get to keep the same job and come back on Monday. And who genuinely wants to put company resources into teaching someone to read and write and do basic addition, which even menial tasks often require?

    Yes, it's hyperbolic to suggest that we're going to get to a point where every potential employee is massively uneducated / homeless / ridden with health problems. But the point is that if we don't make an investment upfront in the education and health of our nation, it's only going to make it more difficult for businesses to find people who are prepared to take on a job from the get-go, and they're going to have to invest more and more in searches and eventually in training. And that's not even touching on what I believe in a human obligation, and for me a Christian obligation, to make sure others' basic needs are met.

    I sincerely recommend the book The Working Poor by David Shipler for a more detailed look at all of this.

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  6. I'm going to look for The Working Poor. Have you seen the book The Spirit Level? It's a statistical perspective that shows which social problems are directly linked to inequality within a society, that more equal societies do better (for everyone, not just the poor), and there's more than one way to attain societal equality (ie. not just "socialism").

    Great post. This week's gospel provided much to reflect on no matter who you are.

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  7. @Tracy
    I haven't heard of The Spirit Level, but it sounds interesting! I've just requested it from my library. Thanks for the recommendation!

    Agreed about the Gospel reading... It's one you hear over and over, but our priest gave a fantastic and challenging homily that gave me a lot to think about.

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  8. @Jessica

    "@ryantm.com
    So what you're saying is that you believe it makes more sense for a business owner to try to make up for 12 years (or less) of poor education through training than to give up a little bit of money now to ensure that everyone can have an adequate education?"

    No, I did not say that at all. I believe it is wrong to take from people to give to others. I also believe people running businesses will do what they need to do to get the help they need.

    "I would add as well that some businesses simply don't have the resources to provide the extensive training"

    Businesses that do not have the resources to achieve their goals will rightfully stop existing.

    "And who genuinely wants to put company resources into teaching someone to read and write and do basic addition, which even menial tasks often require?"

    If people who want to make a good company must do this, they will.

    "But the point is that if we don't make an investment upfront in the education and health of our nation, it's only going to make it more difficult for businesses to find people who are prepared to take on a job from the get-go, and they're going to have to invest more and more in searches and eventually in training."

    I agree that investments should be made; I don't think that it is right to force people to make them.

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  9. @ryantm.com
    "I believe it is wrong to take from people to give to others."
    I could see this point if everyone started from the same place, on a level playing field. If everyone was born with the same privileges and abilities and given the same opportunities, then it could be argued that those who got ahead did so of their own merit and deserve all the benefits that come with that. But that's not the case at all. For me, arguing against welfare would be akin to saying, "Your ability to provide for yourself, and how hard you have to work to do so, should be determined entirely by the circumstances into which you happen to be born." And I just can't get behind that idea.

    "Businesses that do not have the resources to achieve their goals will rightfully stop existing."
    This is another area where we disagree. I think you believe that unfettered capitalism will ensure the strongest economy. I believe that history has shown that, left unchecked, the powerful get more powerful, those with resources are able to get more resources, and the wealth gets concentrated into a smaller and smaller part of the population. And that benefits very few people, whereas a government's job, in my opinion, should be to ensure that its laws benefit the most people possible.

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  10. @Jessica
    "For me, arguing against welfare would be akin to saying, "Your ability to provide for yourself, and how hard you have to work to do so, should be determined entirely by the circumstances into which you happen to be born." And I just can't get behind that idea."

    I believe that taking from people is wrong. I feel that bad caused by actions are much worse than bad caused by luck.

    Re: your second comment:

    You haven't said why you don't agree with my quoted statement.

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  11. @ryantm.com
    "You haven't said why you don't agree with my quoted statement."

    You said business that don't have the resources to provide extensive training to untrained and uneducated prospective employees will "rightfully stop existing."

    I don't agree with the "rightfully" part. In this era of multi-billion dollar corporations, a new independent business has the deck stacked against them because those with money and resources have a much easier time getting more money and resources. More well-known companies are right away going to have an easier time advertising and attracting more talented, better educated staff. Obviously not all new businesses go under, but most do, and I wouldn't use the term "rightfully" to describe that. That's how our perspectives differ.

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  12. I totally agree, both with the article and with your responses to comments. There are very few business leaders who actually take direct action to help ensure that society will provide them with employable people. Bill Gates is an example, with his investments in education--although I think all Microsoft's products suck and some of its business practices are highly questionable, I very much respect him as a philanthropist.

    It would be fabulous if business owners and other people who have been fortunate in life would voluntarily give some of their money, time, and talents to helping other people succeed. Far too few of them do, refusing to realize that (as you so clearly explain) it is in their best interest. Instead they put their energies toward skewing the system more in their own favor: lobbying for favorable tax status and government subsidies for their business, setting up tax shelters for themselves, etc. When the system works for them, they're all for it!

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  13. @'Becca
    Exactly. I think we've waited long enough for the money on top to "trickle down," and it's pretty clear it's not going to. Massive amounts of power and money, in most cases, lead to nothing but greed.

    Have you seen today's xkcd? The average worker's salary has barely changed in the last 40 years while the average CEO's salary has ballooned.

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  14. There are absolutely some people who do not have sufficient compassion for others and who do not want to acknowledge their privilege by helping those who have not been as lucky. People on both ends of the spectrum tend to miscalculate how much circumstances have shaped them, however: people who are privileged attribute too much of their success to merit, but people who are underprivileged can also attribute too much of their lack of success to unchangeable circumstance.

    I don't think the question is whether investments should be made in education and other supports, but how. You admit, Jessica, that the argument you've constructed is a bit of a straw man ("Yes, it's hyperbolic to suggest that we're going to get to a point where every potential employee is massively uneducated / homeless / ridden with health problems...") and you make the implicit assumption that none of these problems are attributable in any meaningful proportion to choice as opposed to luck and circumstance. The reason people argue about these issues is not that some people are stupid (i.e. too short-sighted to see that investing in others is in the interest of everyone if it actually is) or hard-hearted (i.e. have no compassion of any kind for people life has treated ill)but because people reasonably disagree about how to sort out the mix of circumstance and choice that leads to everyone's position in life, and because they reasonably disagree about what system of supports, incentives and cultural messages will lead to the best outcome. Good intentions do not guarantee good outcomes, which is why it takes hard work to figure out how to give support to people who need it in a way that actually helps that person and everyone else in the long-term. The solution has to be more complicated than just (1) more money and (2) accusing people who have a different strategy of being illogical or lacking compassion.

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  15. You bring up the inequality in pay between CEOs and other workers, which is important, but at what point does inequality become morally wrong? For example, is it morally bad that some people are born genetically more gifted than others? Is it morally wrong that people will pay more to hear a symphony than a school band? Is the problem that no one should make that much more money than everyone else (and then who gets to make the call of where to draw that line?) or is it that society is currently over-valuing CEO pay in an irrational way? If it is the latter, the solution is not to make rules that force CEO pay to be lower but to demonstrate how it is illogical that a CEO or football star makes so much, and change our cultural norms about what has value.

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  16. @Anonymous
    What I hear you saying is that this is a complex issue. I completely agree. I don't believe that I implied that there was a simple solution to the issues of poverty, poor education, inadequate healthcare, and vast income inequality. In fact, my entire impetus for writing this post is that it makes me so angry when I hear people say that the poor, the homeless, the uneducated, etc. should "just get a job." What I wished to draw attention to in this post was that it's not quite that simple. People can't just choose to get a job any old day they want to.

    You said that I "[made] the implicit assumption that none of these problems are attributable in any meaningful proportion to choice as opposed to luck and circumstance." As you noted, this is something you inferred rather than something that I said, and it's actually not what I believe at all. Rather I find that in discussing these kinds of issues with other people I come up against others' belief that everything about a person's current circumstance is due to their own choices, and I wish to challenge this notion. In presenting a counterargument I don't mean to imply, and indeed don't believe I did imply, that a person's current circumstances are due entirely to luck. There are many, many stories of people "succeeding" (in the American cultural sense) despite very poor circumstances to begin with. Above, I recommended the book The Working Poor for the precise reason that it highlights people who are working--who are putting in as much effort as they possibly can to bettering their situation, and who for various reasons still find it difficult to have stable housing and steady meals, not to mention adequate healthcare.

    I'm not exactly sure in which part of this post you felt that I was "accusing people who have a different strategy of being illogical or lacking compassion." In fact, I think that people who support the notion of trickle-down wealth--that investing in big business is best for everyone--are doing so because they believe that it is logical, and I can see how it could be viewed as logical. However, I work with data and statistics, so that's how my mind works, and logic can only go so far against historical trends and facts. When a strategy isn't working, I challenge those who cling to it to ask themselves whether their strategy is really in the best interest of anyone, themselves included, in the long term. Regarding compassion or lack thereof, do I believe that a high salary automatically means someone is greedy? No. Do I believe that many wealthy people argue for problematic policies in part because they are blinded by greed? Yes.

    I think you may have misunderstood why I was pointing out the CEO vs. worker data in the xkcd link. The discrepancy between a worker's salary and a CEO's salary is not what concerns me; those who take on more responsibility should be paid more for it. What concerns me is the comparison of growth: that a CEO's salary has continued to grow and grow and grow while a worker's salary has not. This suggests to me that the policies of our country are benefiting only a small portion of its citizens.

    It sounds like maybe you are used to discussing these issues with people who consider them complexly and argue about their solutions at a higher level (not surprising since you're at Harvard), and that is excellent. That is the kind of discussion that needs to happen in this country. Unfortunately I am too used to hearing simplistic notions such as the aforementioned "get a job" or "I earned it, I should get to keep it." I believe the people making these kinds of arguments could benefit from reflecting on the ideas mentioned in my post.

    Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

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  17. I absolutely LOVE your introduction: Why do you tell him to "get a job"? If you wouldn't hire him, why would someone else?

    This deftly illustrates the fact that the job market is a tough place for all sorts of people, whether it's the exaggerated example you're using or a matter of "we went with someone marginally more qualified than you." You highlighted the problem with assuming that people who are unemployed are so only out of their own laziness or bad attitude.

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  18. @Macha
    Exactly. This post was originally going to be about how the phrase "get a job" makes my blood boil because it took Mike a year to get a job after he finished his master's degree. But he's not the one people are yelling "get a job" at. And some people would probably argue that if he'd tried harder or used certain secret techniques he could have landed a job sooner. So I wanted to illustrate that there are some people whose circumstances have put them in such a bad position that no matter what they tried, you probably wouldn't really want to hire them. And I think among those regularly told to "get a job," they're more towards that end of the spectrum than towards the area of highly qualified professionals who can't find work either but have an extensive support network to rely on.

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  19. Here's my take - as Christians, it is absolutely our duty to help those less fortunate than us. However, when we involve the government, what we are doing is taking other people's money at gunpoint and putting it to the uses we deem appropriate. (The guns are there if necessary - just try not paying income taxes and see what happens). I don't think that forced giving allows us to grow, as individuals or as a culture, in the way that giving from the heart does.

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  20. @The Lost Goat
    I don't think that forced giving allows us to grow, as individuals or as a culture, in the way that giving from the heart does.

    I'm not sure which kind of growing you're referring to. If you're talking about spiritual growth, then I can see your point, that forcing people to give does nothing to give them a more charitable heart. Absolutely. Unfortunately, if we're talking about economic growth as a country, I think it's pretty clear by now that we can't rely on voluntary giving to ensure that all citizens have their basic needs met. I think this article from the New York Times does a nice job of explaining how people become less inclined to give as their incomes increase, which, left to its own devices, means that more and more wealth of the country's wealth concentrated in fewer and fewer people. And that it is exactly what we see in America (thus the impetus for the Occupy movement), despite the fact that we do have taxes and social support services, though not nearly as much as some other countries. I honestly shudder to think what would happen to the overall health (economic and physical) of this country if there were no taxes and no services except for what was made possible through voluntary giving. The government's job, IMO, is to act in the best interests of the country as a whole, which means at the very least, doing what is necessary to ensure that every citizen has their basic needs met. And that means recognizing that, for whatever reason, people who "have" don't give enough on their own to make that happen.

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  21. @Jessica It comes down to what you believe the function of government should be. I believe that it is cheap to feed the first hungry person in this country, but financially impossible to feed the last hungry person, as the administrative burden is too great. I view the purpose of the government as keeping the playing field level for all.
    The problem with government is that people are human. People who enjoy wielding power go where the power is. So, the more power you give government, the more power-hungry people you get running the country. This would be acceptable to me if I thought that we could all live a moderate lifestyle in a despotism, but my studies of 20th century China suggest to me that this is not the case.

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  22. @The Lost Goat

    I view the purpose of the government as keeping the playing field level for all.

    I agree! I don't think everyone can or should have equal incomes or even equal education levels, but I think everyone should have equal opportunities, and I don't think we have that right now. Yes, governmental officials are fallible individuals, but that's why it's every American's responsibility to keep pressure on them to act in the best interests of the most people, and not just those people with the most money and power. I don't think the government can feed the last hungry person--but I think it is responsible for making policies that ensure that we are always moving toward more and more people being able to make ends meet, instead of fewer and fewer. That's what will make our country strong.

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  23. Interesting post (and discussion). I am often surprised at the willingless of the average person to support the status quo which has made the rich "richer", squeezed the middle class, and not helped the lower class. It's very short-sighted to think that it's OK and acceptable to have such a great disparity in income distribution. I'm not asking for hand-outs but just a middle-class salary that keeps up with inflation and maybe univeral healthcare and more equal access to education for all. These are keys to a healthy democracy/society, not a pie in the sky dream that goes against wealth-building or the very super rich.

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  24. @oilandgarlic

    I'm not asking for hand-outs but just a middle-class salary that keeps up with inflation and maybe univeral healthcare and more equal access to education for all.

    Precisely. It saddens me that every push for these kinds of initiatives is now met with this cry of "socialism!" which makes people freak out. The average American has been brought up to believe in the power of the individual, and it's not surprising that the more people earn the more they want to take credit for it and dismiss the roles of privilege and opportunity, relegating help for others to voluntary charity and nothing else. But that's a limited view, and as you said, the "if you make it you should keep it" philosophy is short-sighted if we want to have a healthy, thriving society.

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