The "New Poor": Sharing Jobs, Freeing Time

I’ve received some wonderful responses to my recent essays and the letters I’ve shared, on the “new poor.” Today, I’m writing some of my own suggestions about meeting the needs. Soon, I want to share some of the responses I’ve received already and invite you to respond to what I’m suggesting here.

Many people have urged that synagogues, churches, mosques make sure they know who among their members need help – and make sure they get it. That requires explicit public statements from clergy, board members, etc., that no one who has been disemployed or had their home taken away, etc., is at fault, and all should let the clergyperson or a Board member know they are in trouble.

Many of us in the last generation--whether we thought of ourselves as members of religious, racial, and sexual minorities or thought of ourselves as members of “the majority”--affirmed the dignity of those minorities and worked to bring us/them out of the ghetto or the back of the bus or the closet.

Many of us in this generation have worked to end the pariahdom of other minorities--"them" and "us"--in vandalized mosques or violated barrios. Just so we must bring the new poor and the old poor--all of whom are both “them” and “us”--out of the shame and hiding often imposed upon us/ them.

Every congregation should have a special fund--ideally funded on a sliding scale where rich congregants give a lot and even the poorest some tiny contribution – to help people in need.

Every congregation should have in place channels for the flow of goods, money, and service--for example, “gemachs” (grass-roots assistance funds for sharing money, or goods like food, special clothing, home appliances, loans, home health care, etc.; the word is an acronym of “Gemilut chassadim,” the Hebrew for “acts of loving-kindness”).

And in every congregation, it should be clear policy that no one who cannot afford school fees, etc., will be denied congregational services.

This kind of congregational action is necessary--but not sufficient.

Every congregation should also recognize and affirm that to meet society-wide economic disaster, there must be society-wide action.

Clergy should urge congregants to create committees to examine and recommend what social change is necessary. Clergy must set the tone by making absolutely clear that “social action” committees must address “social activism” and advocacy, not only “charity.”

They must make clear that Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism all require passionate compassion. Pursuing “spiritual highs” for the affluent while others “lose” their jobs and homes, their knowledge, their skills, and their dignity, is not an acceptable religious path.

“Social activism” for what?

Already many educators, journalists, politicians, activists have made clear one important path: Move swiftly toward greater economic equality; reduce the power of global corporations; increase taxes on the 1% wealthiest; invest in our rotting infrastructure, our wounded Earth, our disintegrating education.

I think this basic approach is valuable. And I want to propose we also pursue another path--also, not instead. A path far less discussed:

Laws to require a shorter work week and shorter work days, intended to meet four crucial needs:

The need for income: instead of overworking some and disemploying some, full employment at living wages with livable hours: hiring more people to get the same amount of work done, thus meeting needs for shared prosperity;

The need for knowledge: making time for mid-life reeducation in new skills and new understanding of the world, so that in a swiftly changing economy and eco-system, people can actually know how to do honorable work that needs to be done, instead of falling into permanent “unskill.”

The need for real democracy: revitalizing citizen activism by providing the time for grass-roots political action (instead of leaving politics in the hands of giant corporations and ultra-rich billionaires, manipulating the mass media).

The need for love: providing more free time for family, neighborliness, artistic creativity, and spiritual/ religious life.

Why do we need to do this? The new technology (computers, etc) has increased “productivity”: fewer people can get the same amount of work done in less time.

There would have been several ways to benefit from this advance:

One would have been to reduce work hours, keep the same number of people working, redirect the new technology into healing the ecosystems it was damaging, and keep business profits on an even keel.

Another was to fire hundreds of thousands of people, pillage the Earth, and channel the benefits of greater “productivity” to corporate profits.

The first way would have strengthened democracy, human dignity, and the web of life on our planet; the second way has radically weakened all three.

The Shalom Center will be pursuing the approach we call Free Time for a Free Society.

To achieve it will take a redirection of ideas and efforts by labor unions, religious communities, middle-sized and small businesses, teachers and social workers.