Friday, August 2, 2013

Living Wage as "Handout" (and the Sin of Sodom)

Fast-food workers and others in minimum wage employment are staging one-day walk-outs demanding $15 an hour as a “living wage.”  Some are seeking unionization.

Listening to a radio news report about an walk-out at Alaska’s major airport by baggage handlers, I heard an astonishingly hard-hearted (and pea-brained) comment by a management spokesperson.  “I have nothing against unions,” she said, “but I do object to free handouts, and that’s what $15 an hour would be. These people have got to deserve that much money. They should go to school, upgrade their skills, so that they’re worth $15 an hour.”

As Barbara Ehrenreich showed ten years ago in her Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, it’s virtually impossible to maintain an apartment, let alone buy a house on a minimum wage salary.  Exactly how, I wondered, are people working minimum wage jobs going to have enough money to get the education to increase their skills when they can hardly afford housing? The days of street-sweeper to senior partner are long gone in America.

The management lady voices the attitude of too many people who have “made it” in America: “I’ve got mine; what’s wrong with you that you don’t have yours?” I suspect that most people who feel that $15 per hour is a “handout” for fast-food workers have never had to work minimum wage jobs since their high-school spending-money days. Free handouts? “Fat lot she knows,” I muttered to myself.

The Social Sins of Sodom

Doing research for last Sunday’s Old Testament lesson on Sodom and Gomorrah I ran across some biblical and rabbinical teachings about the two infamous cities that resonate all too chillingly with the "no handout" privileged, who live so high up on the world mountain they can’t see the valley clearly at all.

Sodom was said to have many "detestable" sins, gang-rape of both men and women among them. It was the symbolic epitome of the corrupt city, but far and away the worse sin, for the rabbis, was just this haughty “I don’t believe in handouts” attitude toward the poor.  The rabbis say that Sodom’s motto was “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.” Forget about the common good. Their interpretation is based on Ezekiel, who describes Sodom’s “arrogance, gluttonous luxury, idleness, neglect of poor and needy” (Ezek. 16:49). The rabbis say Sodom actually punished people who helped the poor, much as many American cities are passing laws against feeding the homeless, including “health” regulations that effectively shut down church soup kitchens. 

The rabbis tell a tale about one of Lot’s daughters (whose unfortunate sisters were later gang-raped by ruffians desiring to brutalize the three mysterious male wayfarers in the Genesis tale) being put to death for giving money to a beggar. No handouts, no way!  They also tell a joke, too complicated to relate here, about how everything had become fee-for-service in this wealthy city built on the labor of low-income people and home to the festering poor.

I can’t be absolutely sure what the ancient rabbis would say about some of the current political trends in the U.S., but I’ve got a pretty good idea.

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