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Thursday, April 19, 2007

trying to do something constructive

My recent post Law of the Marketplace has produced a lengthy discussion between OneOfMany and Steve Hayes. I think there is common ground to be found here.

In his most recent comment, OneOfMany said, among other things:

As regards hard living and doing without, that is a subject that I’ve tried to do something about by visiting with and spending time with and working with and helping poor people, hard living people, blue collar not well educated working class independent proud teeter tottering on the edge of economic crisis don’t want no handouts people who will not listen to you, to whom you have no right to speak until you have earned the right to speak to them by actually caring and trying to do something constructive to help them.

This matches my own experience. Most poor people want to help themselves. They need a helping hand, not a handout. Many charities are not designed to really help. Whether by design or by accident, they send a clear message that the giver and the receiver are not equals.

About ten years ago I volunteered a few times at food distribution center. I won't name the organization. Once a month, families were allowed to come and receive a shopping cart loaded with dry goods. As I recall, each month there were two lists, one for families with an infant or a toddler, and one for families with older kids. My job was to fill the cart from the list, push the cart out their car, unload the food, and bring the cart back. The recipients were not allowed to do anything for themselves. Wouldn't want them making substitutions in their rations, or running off with a cart.

Every person arrived with a frown or a scowl on their face. They didn't appreciate it -- and why should they? It's humiliating enough to have to rely on handouts in the first place; it's much worse not to be allowed to do what you can.

I remember a boy who must have been about 10-11 years old, who came once with his mother. As I finished filling the cart, he said, "I want to push the cart out." This was a clear violation of the rules. I rolled the cart ouside the door, then, once we were out of view of other volunteers, I let him push the cart to his car.

In all the times I volunteered there, I think that boy was the only person I saw who showed even a glimmer of hope. The setup simply was not conducive to really helping people. I don't fully blame the charity. With the number of people they served, and the limited supplies available, they needed to keep a tight control on their inventory. If people were allowed to choose their own food, some items would be gone before some people could get there.

Even in the most prosperous nation in the history of the world, the need is great. One out of every seven people in the United States lives in poverty. It's good that churches and other groups provide assistance. But the problems are too severe to solve through voluntary programs. The problems are systemic, so any solution must begin with changing the system.

I don't know what the answer is. As OneOfMany points out, no other economic system has proven effective at providing justice and opportunity. Unfortunately, neither does market economics. If we want any semblance of a fair and just society, we need to find a new model.

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At 4/19/2007 9:52 AM, Blogger Steve Hayes said...

Just a small correction -- I was responding partly to some of the things that had been said on your blog (not by you, I should add) and some that had been said on someone else's.

My point did not concern handouts, but the idea that if workers were not paid starvation wages, top management might have to reduce their enormous salaries to merely huge.

Isaiah and Amos had a few things to say about that, but of course they knew nothing about the laws of economics, which apparently say that, hey, if a few workers starve to death because you don't pay them a living wage, there are plenty more where they come from.

In which case I say God DAMN the laws of economics, as indeed he already has, if Isaiah was right when he said "This is the word of the Lord".

At 4/20/2007 9:04 AM, Blogger BruceA said...

Steve -

My point did not concern handouts, but the idea that if workers were not paid starvation wages, top management might have to reduce their enormous salaries to merely huge.

I wasn't trying to imply that you were advocating handouts, and I apologize if I left that impression.

I think you raise an important point about wage descrepancy between management and workers. In a pure free market economy, there is nothing to stop those in power from exploiting their workers.

And now, as we move closer toward a unified global economy with a potential workforce of 6 billion people, it is becoming even easier to pay starvation wages. The so-called laws of the free market don't seem to work very well in practice.

At 4/20/2007 6:29 PM, Anonymous OneOfMany said...

For God to "DAMN" the laws of economics would be as illogical as for Him to "DAMN" the laws of natural selection.

The problem is not that economics is evil any more than a truck or a box cutter is evil. A truck can be used to haul produce to the market for people to buy and eat or it can be used to haul an improvised explosive device to that same market to kill hundreds. A box cutter can be used to (surprise!) open boxes or it can be used as a weapon to bring about the death of thousands. In the same way economics is a tool. It can be used to pull a nation out of financial ruin as was the case with America during the depression years of the 1930's or it can be used to creat a system of exploitation and ethnic cleansing to destroy millions of lives as was the case during the 1930's with the USSR under Stalin.

A truck or a boxcutter or an economic system are in the end tools. These tools are used by people. The results of that use may be good or evil but that is entirely dependent upon those who use them. The only way to change the results is to change the people. Maybe that's why so many "answers" focus on systemic change. It's easier. Changing people is much harder. Nevertheless that's the only change that really works. Sincerely. OOM.

At 4/21/2007 10:43 AM, Blogger Steve Hayes said...

Changing people is much harder. Nevertheless that's the only change that really works.

Aye, but if people change, they are likely to ignore the "laws" of economics.

Some years ago the Anglican Bishjop of Namibia visited Durbamn in Southn Africa and appealed for people to help the woprk of the church in Namibia (ehich was then still under Stouh African rule).

One bloke said he'd love to copme, but wehat could he do, he was just a builder. The bishop told him to come, and God would show him what to do. So they started a building firm, owned by the church, recruited workers from congregations in the poor rural areas, asking for people who wanted to learn the building trade. And 18 months later the bloke from Durban gave his first report to synod, saying that they had shown one could runa business along Christian lines and still make a profit. They paid three times the going rate for buildin g workers, and worked as a team, working together, playing together and praying together.

At 4/22/2007 12:42 PM, Blogger truevyne said...

The stifling food pantry experience probably taught you the great lessons- how not to minister. Watching mistakes has been as important for me see how to minister.

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