Sabbath Day Rest

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”  So begins the Department of Labor’s[i] website regarding the history of Labor Day.  It ends with this statement: The vital force of labor added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known and has brought us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy. It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pay tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom, and leadership — the American worker.”

Only a fraction of workers have Labor Day as a paid holiday.  In Tuscaloosa, over 200 establishments will be open this Labor Day.  In a 2013 survey[ii], 39% of employers nationwide will be requiring their employees to work Labor Day. The tribute offered by the nation becomes only a symbolic gesture; it is no longer a sincere offer of gratitude to the American worker.

I wonder if the life expectancy of Americans ranking 34th in the world, tied with Cuba, Columbia, Qatar, Costa Rica, and Nauru is in part because we do not honor the notion of a Sabbath.  Every nation that has surpassed our life expectancy by years—require employers to offer paid vacation and many of them also require paid holidays.  The US does not. Even Japan with its stricter work ethic than the US requires companies to offer 10 days of paid vacation leave. Their life expectancy is number one in the world at 84 years. Every single nation that excels in life expectancy over the US has a minimum of 10 days required paid leave in addition to paid holiday leave.  Most of these nations total between 25 and 35 days of paid leave a year.

Is there a correlation between paid leave and life expectancy?  I don’t know.  What has been studied is that there is a correlation between income and life expectancy.  An increase of $10K a year for someone who is in the bottom 25% of income does more to increase their life expectancy while a reduction of $10K for someone who is in the top tiers of income has little impact on their life expectancy.

According to National Employment Law Project, 60% of businesses are in favor of a $12 an hour minimum wage.  This wage would give the lowest paid wage earners in our country that $10K a year increase and have a positive impact on their health and life expectancy.

The average life expectancy in the US for males is 76 years of age.  The difference between expectancy between a male whose income is in the upper tiers of income versus the lower tiers of income is 6 years[iii].  The argument to make the poor wait for retirement benefits does not make sense when life expectancy improvement is concentrated in the wealthy.  Retirement should not be the only time we get to experience rest from our labors. My hunch is that we would enjoy more and longer retirement years if we are able to take paid leaves throughout our work lives.

The Center for Economic Policy report from 2013 found that 69% of small businesses in the US are less likely to offer paid vacation time.  Only 49% of low wage workers have paid vacation time versus 90% of high wage workers.  The ability to have time off should not be only reserved for those in high hourly wage or salaried positions. Time off is important for our general wellbeing, not only physical health but mental and spiritual health as well.

When I was executive director of a small non-profit, it was important to me that my employees had the ability to take paid time off from work—be it sick, vacation, or personal days regardless of hours worked.  It was pro-rated based on their hours worked.  The work was demanding and stressful enough to have to also worry about a sick child at home.  Every part time employee had a pro-rated equivalent of two weeks off their first year and it increased to four weeks after 5 years of employment.  Our turnover was low in part because of this ability to offer paid leave.  The philosophy I employed was that if the employer can assist in taking care of the basics for the employee then that will translate into increased productivity.  Having the ability to have time off when needed was a vital basic need.

We simply don’t do Sabbath well.  When I was growing up we had in New York State what was called the Blue Laws, there are versions of these elsewhere as well.  But when I was a child, one version of the Blue laws was that stores were closed on Sunday.  End of discussion.  It was meant to be a guaranteed day of rest.

Oliver Sacks describes his family’s Sabbath[iv]:  [The family] mingled outside the synagogue after the service — and we would usually walk to the house of my Auntie Florrie and her three children to say a Kiddush, accompanied by sweet red wine and honey cakes, just enough to stimulate our appetites for lunch. After a cold lunch at home — gefilte fish, poached salmon, beetroot jelly — Saturday afternoons … would be devoted to family visits. Uncles and aunts and cousins would visit us for tea, or we them; we all lived within walking distance of one another.

“Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.” Yes, the blue laws of my childhood had its origins in the Jewish and Christian notions of the Sabbath.  But there are benefits of having a weekly Sabbath Rest and our society can’t even tolerate one day a year to be held distinct from all others for all its citizens.

Former Senator Joseph Lieberman wrote a book[v] on his practice of Sabbath as an observant Jew.  He writes:  “The benefits of the Sabbath, a Day of Rest, are many. One is just rest. As the Bible says, `Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work: but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord, your God: in it thou shalt not do any work.’ It refreshes you physically and mentally. It gives you time.”

Dedicating a day of rest by making it different from every other day of the week is also a way to honor your own life and the lives of your loved ones.  It is a means to recognize that your life has inherent worth and dignity. It declares your life and the life of your loved ones are worthy of respect and love.  Senator Lieberman buys fresh flowers for his wife every Friday before the Sabbath, not because he is a romantic but because his observance of the Sabbath commands him to celebrate the love between him and his wife.  This simple act sets the day apart from the week.  The Sabbath, Senator Lieberman states, is meant to engage “the senses—sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch—with beautiful settings, soaring melodies, wonderful food and wine, and lots of love. It is a time to reconnect with family and friends—and, of course, with God, the Creator of everything we have time to ‘sense’ on the Sabbath.”

However, we have made it nearly impossible for families to have a Sabbath day rest.  Our low wage earners in order to make ends meet are forced to have multiple jobs.  According to information gathered by Engage Alabama in Birmingham, the poverty level for a single mom with two kids is $19,700 yet a full time position at minimum wage only pays her $15,080.  Keep in mind, 69% of small businesses do not offer paid leave of any kind.  She misses work she loses pay.

Even if she was able to secure full time employment at $8.50 an hour, she still remains in poverty with an annual income of $17,500.  She will still need a second part time job to bring her above the poverty level and the likelihood that position will offer paid leave is even less.  Full time employees should not find themselves living in poverty. They should be able to earn enough to meet their basic needs.

If she was earning $10.10 an hour, she would be making $21,000 a year and would be able to qualify for health insurance for $50 a month through the federal marketplace. If the minimum wage of $1.60 in 1968 had kept up with inflation, the minimum wage would be $10.90 today.

Franklin D. Roosevelt when he introduced his National Industry Recovery Act[vi]  in 1933, stated:  It seems to me to be equally plain that no business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country. By “business” I mean the whole of commerce as well as the whole of industry; by workers I mean all workers, the white collar class as well as [those] in overalls; and by living wages I mean more than a bare subsistence level-I mean the wages of decent living.

When the minimum wage was first created nationally in 1938, it was meant to be a living wage.   But that is not how it has worked out.  Minimum wages have become stuck points in time.  In 2009, the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour was set.  To purchase something that cost $7.25 in 2009, today would cost $8.07.  It simply does not have the same purchasing power that it had.

Birmingham earlier this year passed a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour that will go into effect in January 2017.  They added to that ordinance the mandate that every year after that, minimum wage would be adjusted for inflation every January 1st.  This is the common sense thing to do and should have been included in 1968 when the $1.60 minimum wage was set.

There are over 17,500 low wage workers in the top 25 occupations in Tuscaloosa. Imagine what a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour would do for these people who are working hard yet finding themselves stuck in poverty and needing public assistance.

Our single mom would be able to come off of public assistance, spend more time with her children, and have an increased quality of life. She would have more income to buy locally the things she needs for her family.  Raising local wages would put more money into the local economy which in turns generates increased revenue for local businesses.

With the ability to meet basic needs, our low wage workers would be able to take a much desired breath.  For every dollar raise they receive means an additional $150 per month after taxes.  A worker making $8 an hour, making $10.10 an hour would earn $300 more per month.  That $300 would make a huge difference in their lives.

It would ultimately result in lifting all wages in the community. And how does that support Sabbath rest?  If a low wage earner is able to reduce the number of jobs needed to support their family because their rate of pay has increased, it would allow them to have that time with their loved ones.  It would strengthen the family unit.  It would reduce the stress they face that threatens their health and potentially extend their life expectancy.

If we could then convince employers that it is in their best interests to have healthy happy employees by offering health benefits, by offering paid leave—vacation, sick, holidays, and personal days; then we can begin to see how a Sabbath rest, a day dedicated to nurturing our souls and our families souls can transform our society.

Those of us fortunate to have paid leave, or two days off a week, consider taking one day to set it aside for family and friends only.  Choose to not do chores that day so your attention can be focused on your loved ones. Couples, make that a date night.  Families make that a family day of activities that are not chores around the house. If you are fortunate to work for one of the 61% employers that are not requiring you to work Labor Day, then use tomorrow to rest, have that BBQ outside with family and friends.  Finish your shopping chores today so you won’t be shopping tomorrow. Let the other 39% realize that it cost them more money to stay open than closing to honor this day.

Oliver Sacks closed his Sabbath reflection with these words: what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.                                                                                

Oliver Sacks died a few days after writing these words for the New York Times.  May we choose to not wait til one’s last days on this earth to ponder what is living a good and worthwhile life—achieving a sense of peace within oneself but may we instead create that day to reflect, to ponder, to celebrate the life we have been given with our loved ones as part of our weekly practice. Blessed be.

[i] As found September 4 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/opinion/sunday/oliver-sacks-sabbath.html?_r=0

[ii] Lieberman, The Gift of Rest, Howard Books, 2011

[iii] http://docs.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/ODNIRAST.HTML

[iv] http://www.dol.gov/laborday/history.htm

[v] As found on September 5, 2015, http://business.time.com/2013/08/30/this-labor-day-much-of-america-will-be-laboring/

[vi]http://www.realclearmarkets.com/articles/2012/10/24/life_expectancy_income_inequality_and_entitlements_why_the_connection_matters_99949.html

A Dream Deferred

A Dream Deferred

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa

16 January 2011 ©  Rev. Fred L Hammond

Langston Hughes poem was first published under the title “Harlem” in 1951.  Sixty years ago.  Oh how things have changed since then and yet, oh, how things have remained the same.   In many ways, the dreams of people in America remain deferred.

When Langston Hughes wrote this poem, Martin Luther King, Jr. was not yet a household name. Brown vs the Board of Education had not yet been ruled on by the US Supreme Court.  His dream for equality was not yet vocalized to the masses.  Voting rights were denied.  Jim Crow laws were in full force in the south and the slick-smile- to-the-face-and-quiet-stab-in–the-back racism was in the north.  Dreams were deferred and they were drying up like a raisin in the sun and they were festering like a sore and they were crusting over like a syrupy sweet and sagging like a heavy load.  They were about to explode.

Martin Luther King came on the scene and for the first time gave real hope and real promise to African Americans not only of freedom but freedom to achieve the American Dream; where their children would have opportunities of education, of employment, of a life that was unimaginable to their parents.   After years of struggle laws were passed that removed the Jim Crow laws, restored voting rights, and desegregated schools.  Affirmative Action was put into place to remove the institutional barriers to opportunities for African Americans and other minorities.

But something happened along the way.  After King’s assassination, a new despair began to seep into our country. We began to see the destruction of many of the programs that lifted us out of the depression of the 1930’s.  And the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest of us at its narrowest in 1968, the year of King’s assassination, doubled in width by 2009.[i]

Yet America’s productivity has grown during that same time period.  The gains of productivity have gone towards corporate earnings and profits instead of the employees who labored.  So who are the people who have suffered during this widening gap?  The top 20% of Americans earn 50% of the income generated in America. The fastest growing income segment are those in the top .01% of Americans with 22% of the income generated in America[ii]. The bottom 20% of Americans earn 3.4% of the income generated.   These individuals who are earning the least amount of income tend to be those without a high school diploma.  They tend to be people who live in rural areas of the country[iii].

Edward Wolff of New York University when looking at net worth of people in America discovered that 20% of Americans own about 85% of the wealth and 40% of Americans own near zero percent and in fact have a negative net wealth[iv].   I don’t know about you, but I certainly fall into that 40% category.

Martin Luther King’s dream went beyond the abolishment of racism, he saw the abolishment of poverty.  Towards the end of his life, life, poverty became an important piece of his message. He saw the programs against poverty that were in place in 1968 and their current versions 40 years later as being uncoordinated piecemeal efforts.  Housing programs, educational reform, welfare assistance all being done in piece meal fashion and all fluctuate at the whims of legislative bodies.   We saw what the well intended deregulated housing programs have wrought in 2008. It was thought that home ownership was one of the factors that would lift America out of poverty.  The largest mortgage default in American history that nearly collapsed our economy continues at record rates as we enter the New Year.

Martin Luther King stated the simplest solution to abolish poverty would be a guaranteed income.  He stated there are two groups of people in America who currently have a guaranteed income, the wealthiest with their security portfolios and the poor with their welfare assistance.

King wrote that John Kenneth Galbraith, considered one of the most influential economists of the 20th century, estimated that $20 billion a year would effect a guaranteed income, which Galbraith describes as “not much more than we will spend the next fiscal year to rescue freedom and democracy and religious liberty as these are defined by ‘experts’ in Vietnam.”  If my calculations adjusting for inflation are correct, $125 Billion a year in 2010 dollars would effect a guaranteed income which is less than 1/3rd what the war in Afghanistan[v] is costing Americans and 16 % of what the alleged post war costs in Iraq are slated for this budget year.

King believed that such a guaranteed income needed to be placed in the median income of Americans, to place it at the floor level would only continue the stagnation that welfare recipients currently experience.  He believed this guaranteed income needed to be dynamic and be adjusted annually with the productivity of the nation’s total income.

King wrote that a “a host of positive psychological changes inevitably will result from widespread economic security. The dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his/her life are in his/her own hands, when [s]he has the assurance that [her]his income is stable and certain, and when [s]he knows that [s]he has the means to seek self-improvement. Personal conflicts between husband, wife and children will diminish when the unjust measurement of human worth on a scale of dollars is eliminated.[vi]

Today we see marriage in decline in the United States as people struggle to develop economic viability.  The number of married couples dropped to a record low of 52 % in 2009 as compared to 57% in the year 2000.  And this does not include those marriages that are staying together only because they cannot afford to divorce at this time[vii]. King is suggesting that couples esteem would increase if economic woes did not define who we are as human beings.

King writes: “The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with superfluity. If democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity. It is not only moral, but it is also intelligent. We are wasting and degrading human life by clinging to archaic thinking.

“The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.[viii]

In a survey done by Michael Norton and Dan Ariely on income equity in the United States, they found “a large majority of every group … surveyed — from the poorest to the richest, from the most conservative to the most liberal — agreed that the current level of wealth inequality was too high and wanted a more equitable distribution of wealth. In fact, Americans reported wanting to live in a country that looks more like Sweden than the United States.”[ix]

The last time such huge disparity between the wealthy and the poor existed in America was during what was called the Gilded Age, the period towards the end of the 19th century.  It was met with labor unrest and political agitation and it was toppled by the second worst depression in American history.  The current time in our society is being called the second gilded age.

American Conservative magazine suggests: “In the course of the 20th century, there were several eras of growing economic inequality. On a few occasions, they came to an end in a relatively gentle way, with democratic elections and more egalitarian legislation. More often, however, they were ended by a catastrophe, such as the Great Depression, a violent social revolution, or a world war. When the rich went out, it seems, they normally did so with a bang, and not with a whimper. The way things are now going, it is likely to be so in the future[x].”

So here we have King’s dream of a society that has not only abolished racism but also abolished poverty.  He believed it was not only doable but achievable in his lifetime.  Forty years after his death, we appear to be further away from either part of his dream from being fulfilled.  We have the gap between the wealthy and the poor growing to widths that were pre-cursers to some of the most heinous governments in our world’s history.  We have scapegoated our economic woes on the backs of immigrants and Muslims.

I spoke with [a member] on Friday.  I told her I was doing this sermon and wanted to know her thoughts about Martin Luther King.  [She] said something to me that made me stand up and take notice.  She said her mother used to ask why Martin Luther King couldn’t just write his words and not show up for these events.  Her mother was aware of the physical danger King faced every time he made a public appearance somewhere. As we now know, it was his appearance for the sanitation workers strike in Memphis that culminated in his assassination.  Why not just write and not show up.

Could King have had the same effect if he simply wrote his views and not shown up in Selma, not shown up in Birmingham, and not shown up in Montgomery?  Would his “I Have a Dream” speech be remembered if he had not shown up to deliver it at the March on Washington but merely had it published in the Atlantic Monthly?

Dreams do not come true if we choose not to show up in our pursuit of them.  If we stand back, nod our heads in agreement, but do not show up to place our words into living action, then what have we accomplished?  It is easy to do arm chair justice.  We can sign all the petitions on MoveOn.com or rant all we want about injustice on the Tuscaloosa News Forum but if we hide behind the comfort of our screen name, what have we really accomplished?  We remain unseen.  We remain voiceless.  We remain without strength to make a difference.

Now I do not know if King’s economic justice dream of guaranteed income can be easily applied given our current political tension.  There will be shouts of socialism or worse.  It could be seen as reparations for slavery even though it would benefit everyone.  But imagine knowing that regardless of the work you are doing, you would receive at least a base pay of say $40,000.   Additional salary would be based on the performance of the company producing whatever it is they produce.  For some of us that amount of salary would answer many problems.

But this sort of dream can never come true if people do not show up to advocate for it.  The majority of people in America want some form of equalization of income, so says the survey.  The survey indicates the ideal they want is Sweden.  According to the CIA Fact book, Sweden has achieved an enviable standard of living under a mixed system of high-tech capitalism and extensive welfare benefits. It has a modern distribution system, excellent internal and external communications, and a skilled labor force.[xi] Sweden does not have a poverty level ranking in the CIA Fact book; it is listed as not applicable.

We are called to show up in the pursuit of our dreams, in the pursuit of a just and equitable world.  Mahatma Gandhi is oft quoted as saying, “be the change you want to see in the world.”  In President Obama’s closing words at the memorial for those who were killed in Tucson last week, he said, “I want us to live up to [Christina Taylor Green’s] expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us – we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.[xii]” If we seek to do that we will be fulfilling Martin Luther King’s dream for all of us.  Blessed Be.

[i] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/09/28/income-gap-widens-census-_n_741386.html

[ii] http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/06132008/profile2.html

[iii] This information is based on this report: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/business/july-dec10/income_09-28.html

[iv] http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10318/1102841-109.stm

[v] based on military budget figures found at http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/RL33110.pdf

[vi] Martin Luther King  “Where do we go from here?”  as found in the text The essential writings and speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by James M. Washington.

[vii] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/21/AR2010032103139.html

[viii] Martin Luther King  “Where do we go from here?”  as found in the text The essential writings and speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by James M. Washington.

[ix] Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10318/1102841-109.stm#ixzz1B8foXmFG

[x] as found at : http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/06132008/profile2.html

[xi] https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/sw.html

[xii] http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20028366-503544.html

Published in: on January 17, 2011 at 4:21 pm  Comments Off on A Dream Deferred  
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How desperate the cut off line of poverty

My friend Rev. Ricky talks on his blog about a woman in his congregation who was denied services from an agency she needed because she did not meet the eligibility requirements.  She felt anger towards the non-profit and wanted to get beyond it.

In reading this, I was reminded of a surviving spouse of a person we served at Interfaith AIDS Ministry.  She wanted to know how she could continue receiving supports from us.  She had given us the complement that we did what we said we would do and that our services actually made it easier for families struggling.  Our policy was that we continued providing supports to the family one year after the person with HIV/AIDS died as a means to help with the grieving process and to aid in transitioning to other support agencies if needed.  

She was at the cut-off line in eligibility for services from other agencies.  It was clear that she and her family would benefit greatly but that she simply did not qualify because of a number of factors.  She told me that she would infect herself with HIV if it meant that she would be able to live a more quality-filled life with services.  Needless to say I counseled her away from such an action, yet here was the level of desperation we have come to in this country.  Stating that her quality of life would be improved with HIV-a disease that includes treatments that are oft times just as painful and disabling as the disease itself-is a harsh commentary on American life.

At that time, I heard similar stories from my executive director colleagues in the HIV/AIDS arena.  The work they began doing was more and more poverty relief. How do you provide sufficient supports to people living with HIV/AIDS and their families when they are on the cut off line of poverty?  When they are unable to make ends meet on minimum wage? 

It isn’t just HIV/AIDS that places them on this cut-off line… the line is filled with so many more factors…  As the recession that our government denies being in deepens, families that have been floating just above this cut-off line will begin to sink.   It is already happening.   The gap is growing between the rich and the poor.   The middle is waisting away to use an HIV/AIDS metaphor. 

What is the response of the church?  What will it take for us to respond in a manner that doesn’t just provide a safety net for those falling but prevents the fall in the first place.  There is a story that I have heard many versions of and it has been attributed to many people that I do not know its original source. 

The story goes like this…  I was walking along a river when I saw a baby drowning.  I ran in and pulled the baby out.  Just as I pulled this baby out, I saw another baby drowning in the river and another.  I called on the passer-bys and soon there were hundreds of us saving babies drowning the river.  We formed an organization to save drowning babies.  We had services galore for these drowning babies.  Then it dawned on me, and I left the river.  People asked me where was I going when there was so much work to do?  I said, I am going up stream to find out who is throwing babies into the river and stop them. 

Justice is not just the pulling out of the river the drowning babies.  Justice is locating the cause that placed the babies in the river to drown in the first place and stopping that causal condition.   We in America have many causes to the drowning babies problem. 

We can get caught up in the symptom and think that this is the work we must do- to treat the symptom.  Yes, by all means help those suffering and seek to relieve their suffering.  But to truly create justice in America we need to focus on the cause and work there as well. 

I have seen more poverty since moving to Mississippi.  I see more people who are on this cut off line.  They are struggling to make ends meet.  I have listened to their stories, heard their despair, and felt their hopelessness that things will get better.   We need to do better.   We are the richest country in the world and we can do better.  We can create justice that is equitable and compassionate.   Let us begin.  Blessings,

 

 

  

Published in: on April 26, 2008 at 2:14 pm  Comments Off on How desperate the cut off line of poverty  
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