The Coming Collapse of Middle Class Giving

I just watched a youtube video of Elizabeth Warren’s 2008 lecture “The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class.” It was very clear and helpful. I’m going to distill it, and add a few thoughts of my own. I hope that you will chime in on a subject we haven’t explored yet: the intersection between promoting giving and politics. Why is this intersection important?

Between 1970 and 2007, the median 2 parent family increased expenses on:
* houses by 76%,
* health insurance by 74% (if healthy and employer-sponsored),
* cars by 52% (because families used to have 1 car on average),
* child care by 100% (a new expense),
* taxes by 25% (because moms are now working in addition to dads).

The family paid 50% of its income for those five things above on 1 income back in 1970. But now, the family pays 75% of its income for those things on 2 incomes.

The family saved 11% of total income in 1970, and now we save a whopping 0%. In fact, we are in debt. We’re assuming more risk and stress. What happens if one parent loses a job or gets really sick? What happens if we need to care for elderly parents? So how in the world is the average middle class Christian family going to give towards global poverty, when we feel like we’re skating on the edge, or already treading water?

If I’m interested in giving, and in helping other people give, I’ve got to be interested in the system and not just individual choices. I’ve got to care about why our big “non-negotiable-feeling” expenses (housing in wealthy school districts, etc.) have shot up so much, not just why we are in more consumer debt. So why has this happened?

One reason is that in the 1970’s, bank mortgage law changed to consider 2 incomes and not just 1 income; that shifted the entire real estate market towards larger homes. Now in many places, it’s not even possible to get a mortgage without 2 incomes. We need to go back to smaller homes, so that we can afford mortgages on 1 income. We really have to consider living in intentional Christian community, in the city and the burbs. In the long run, Christian real estate developers and policy makers need to leverage their influence in city planning and housing policy. Bringing down housing costs would free up dramatically more money to give.

Our overall health has really changed over the last 40 years, too. For those of you who know me, you know that my family and I are really into eating healthy because society’s change in food is making us sicker. One in three Americans born after the year 2000 will have diabetes. So we’ve got to eat healthier and ask stores to carry healthier foods. We need to stop Monsanto and other companies making genetically modified food, which gives us allergies and inflammation. We need higher standards for testing and packaging. We need to stop giving $8 billion in subsidies to corn producers, which doesn’t go to the farmers anyway but rather chemicals and oil companies. And dare I say that we need a public option to drive down health insurance costs? Private health insurance companies made a 26% profit during 2009, during the depth of this recession! Why is insurance a profit-making industry? Lowering our health costs would free up more money to give in the long run.

We need to raise the tax rate on the rich. It’s fairly clear from the 1920’s, 1980’s, and the 2000’s that rich people do not stimulate the economy or create jobs. They put their money in risky financial investments that then “need” government bail outs. The rich give less as a % of their wealth, so helping the lower and middle classes will result in more giving overall.

We need to reign in banks and financial institutions. They changed the real estate market, then bet against middle class families in the mortgage crisis. They promote overconsumption and debt. They oppose the Consumer Financial Protections Bureau which is like opposing a “list of ingredients” on our food packaging, etc. And on a global level, the IMF and World Bank are dubious. The ancient Jewish, Christian, and Greek suspicion of interest rates was well founded, because they recognized how the rich could further take advantage of the poor through interest rate lending. Unregulated profit motives and unchecked private power will always grind down the face of the poor especially.

I’m sure you can think of more, and I’d like to consider it. If we care about giving, and especially middle class giving, then we need to care about the systems we live in, and not just individual consumer choices, as important as those are. What do you think?

Where Face Paint and Foreign Aid Meet: Fusing Fun with Purpose

When God calls us to “open wide” our hands to the poor (Deuteronomy 15) and pour ourselves out for the hungry (Isaiah 58), He leaves the specifics up to us. We can give to aid organizations or donate canned goods to the food pantry, for example, or volunteer at the soup kitchen.

We can even take those dictates literally by sharing a meal with hungry people. Here in Cambridge, I’ve had the pleasure of befriending Mike, who likes to eat chicken fried rice with his hands, and Harold, a gourmand who makes his own pizza and experienced such horror toward my weekly spam dinners that he once surprised me with a bag of fresh groceries. “Anything but spam, please!” he said. Given his nonexistent income, I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.

Yet, most of these responses preclude participation by my large and rather diverse network of friends. Few of our calendars are brimming with empty weeknights that allow us to take a volunteer shift, for example, and from experience, I’ve learned that food pantries can accommodate only so many volunteers each evening anyway.

As I celebrated my 26th birthday this year, then, I decided to put another spin on responding biblically to hunger: I threw a huge, “Back to Childhood”-themed, birthday costume party. Culinary highlights included childhood snacks such as Twizzlers and Yoohoo’s as well as my favorite dessert, pecan pie.

Instead of presents, I invited friends to come bearing costumes and a gift of another kind of wealth, one that we sometimes forget about—political capital. I asked guests to bring a letter for their congressman advocating for foreign aid reform. I tracked their gifts on a spreadsheet and set up a letter-writing station next to my face-painting “booth” for those who hadn’t had time to write letters at home.

hand-writing letters at the letter-writing station… in full costume

 
creating masterpieces at the face-painting booth

With the help of preprinted templates, all it took was five minutes to hand-write a letter, and in the end, I collected a whopping 30 letters from friends across six states.

My party took place the night before my actual birthday, and I ended up spending much of my birthday tracking letters and stuffing envelopes—all over bites of leftover pecan pie, of course.

In the end, I couldn’t have imagined a more meaningful way to celebrate turning 26.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

more costumes, snacks and face paint: just further proof that we can fuse fun with Biblical purpose in our day-to-day lives — all very simply

 

Stereotypes


A few weekends ago, June and I hosted a smallgroup.  One of the guys who came was in his early 40’s, a bit quiet, college-educated, lived in Boston, clean-shaven, wearing a sweatshirt and jeans and wire-rimmed glasses, an immigrant with accented English.  With the exception of being an immigrant, that could describe me.  Except our visitor was homeless.

It’s easy to stereotype the homeless with negative connotations, maybe from the media or maybe from contact with panhandlers.  In the same way, it’s easy to stereotype the rich and the poor.  Interestingly, most people in the U.S. think of themselves as middle-class — the “poor” are people who are worse-off, and the “rich” are people who live in mansions.  The danger of such thinking is that it fosters a territorial mentality.  It brings about such thoughts as “tax the rich” or “I don’t want to raise my kids in a poor school district.”

Another danger is that stereotypes erase individuality.  They prevent one from seeing people as unique children of God, with their own gifts and callings and personal histories.  It can be offensive to assume people are a certain way because of a stereotype.  “Hey Mr. Asian, can you help me with my math homework?”  The PC movement has helped raise awareness of such issues in racial stereotypes.  But money and class stereotypes are still strongly entrenched.  And buying into those stereotypes can blind us from seeing individual needs.  Maybe that trust fund kid has money struggles, while that poor retiree does not.  Not every homeless person is looking for a handout, or even a job.

I’m curious to hear about your experiences of being surprised by a “poor” person.  Did it change your way of thinking?

The Simple Living Challenge

“What are you giving up for Lent?”  I usually have mixed feelings when I hear that question this time of year.  On one hand, I deeply value Lent as a way to prepare myself to celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ.  I appreciate the opportunity to grow in one specific aspect of my faith and character for a defined amount of time.  On the other hand, I often don’t know what exactly to do, and the churches I’ve attended rarely have done anything together, so I flounder.

But five years ago a group of friends came up with the most inspiring Lenten idea I’ve ever encountered.  They were concerned by the painful fact that one of every eight people today has no access to clean water.  Women and children must trudge long distances to find dirty, bacteria-infested water, keeping them from school or productive work.  Once they drink it, they inevitably get sick.  But my friends also pointed out that those of us from more privileged backgrounds often pass up free, clean, healthy tap water to drink sodas and other high-fructose concoctions that are prime contributors to the obesity and diabetes epidemics.

The great thing about my friends’ response is that they didn’t just think about these hard truths, which feels bad. They did something about it—which feels good! They called it Project 440.  The nine of them, inspired by their faith, decided to drink only tap water for the duration of Lent, bringing attention to the issues while saving themselves money and improving their health.  Meanwhile, through March Madness basketball pools, raffles at house parties, and matching grants, they raised enough money to drill deep-water wells for five villages in Haiti. Not a bad answer to “what are you giving up for Lent?”!

I think Project 440 was so memorable for me because it convinced me that small groups of friends have big potential to make a difference–both for themselves and for people like those in Haiti still drinking clean water today.  In fact, I’d like to celebrate Lent in a similar way every year.  But unfortunately, for the last few years I haven’t been in close proximity to like-minded friends, so I’ve let my vision languish a bit.

So this year, using this space now available in the blogosphere, we’d like to propose a new Lent experiment.   We’re calling it the Simple Living Challenge, and we hope it’s a fun, meaningful way to concretely reflect Jesus’ justice and compassion, even if we’re separated by distance.  Here’s how it works:

  • First, let’s commit to giving up all beverages except tap water for the entire duration of the forty days before Easter.  Every day will be a chance to appreciate the gift of clean water. You’ll save money, simplify your life, and maybe even feel better without the unhealthy stuff we drink in our “comfort beverages.”  If forty days seems too hard, join anyway and challenge yourself to make it as many days as you can!
  • Second, let’s find sponsors to support our tap-water-drinking efforts.  Just as race sponsors donate a certain sum per mile run, we’ll ask folks to donate something for every day we drink only tap water, up to forty.  We’ve set up a page at the charity: water website which will direct 100% of our tax-deductible donations to support clean water efforts throughout the world.  And after Easter we can even see on Google Earth exactly where our donations are put to use.

So what’s next?  This Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, we’ll kick off a six-day window for everyone to sign on.  The Simple Living Challenge will begin at sunrise on Tuesday, March 15.  If this sounds like something you’d be excited about, we’d especially encourage you to spread the word and participate together with friends, family or church small groups.  Please consider joining us!

Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For . . . . I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.

–Jesus

 

Democracy, Protests, and Economic Growth

Sometimes I feel that personal giving is not enough.  No matter how much I myself give, it’s a drop in the ocean of poverty.  Even if the entire developed world gave 0.7% or 1%, no one has any idea how it can be distributed to reach the global poor.  In addition, there is the problem of corruption.  Government officials or militias (sometimes there’s no difference) can intercept food before it gets to civilians.  It makes me think of the Think of the Children problem, in which you can’t help needy kids without dealing with their primary caretakers who can subvert the intended aid.

That’s why I’m encouraged these past few weeks to see protests around the world, local people rising up against harsh dictators and corrupt governments.  I’m also encouraged that technology companies like Google, Twitter, and Facebook have helped spread the ideas that better government is possible.  It makes me feel better about working in tech, which can sometimes feel very disconnected from helping the poor.  And I wonder if these tech companies have been more influential than traditional Christian missionaries in those countries.

There are two broad categories of social justice: relief (short-term) and development (long-term).  Most personal donations fall into the relief category.  Even if they go towards, say, microloans for businesses to develop sustainable income, they are still at the mercy of local governments.  In the end, strong and free governments are necessary to provide a business-friendly environment that will create a sustainable economic ecosystem.

I like the Good Paper model.  It provides dignified work and income for the poor and abused.  But by itself it is not a complete and sustainable system — it creates products for consumption by rich Westerners through appealing to their compassion and pity.  For poor countries to grow their economies overall, they must have local businesses and industries that serve themselves, not just luxury exports.  I don’t know how to help this process along, so I’m glad to see locals taking charge of fixing their own governments.  Are you or anyone you know actively involved?

How Do You Build a Wealth-Diverse Community?

My church, Jesus the Recreator, is trying to build a diverse community in San Jose, California.  Diverse not just racially, but also socio-economically.  To me, the latter is the hard part.  Personally, I have a much easier time socializing with other educated people regardless of race.  Do you feel the same?  In the secular non-profit world, I also see this clear class division.  You either work directly with the poor, such as social work, or indirectly as a part of a think tank or foundation.  The former generally don’t write papers or work on policy, and the latter don’t have friends among the poor.

If it’s hard to make friends outside of your socio-economic class, it’s even harder to build a whole church community.  I know of only a few examples of current-day churches which have managed to do this: Mako and Ming’s church in Dorchester, Gary and Jodi’s church in Oakland, and Grace Fellowship Community Church in San Francisco.  My impression is that it takes many years and an extraordinary level of commitment to develop this type of community.  Do you know of other examples, and if you’ve been a part of such a church, what have been the key factors to making it work?

The Poorest Americans and the Richest Indians


http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/31/the-haves-and-the-have-nots/

Sort everyone in the U.S. by income, and arrange them into 20 groups.  The poorest group makes an average of $6700 per year.  Pretty poor, eh?  Now do the same for everyone in India.  According to the graph above, the poorest group in the U.S. makes more than the richest group in India!  I find that amazing.  Last year I went to a lavish wedding in India which certainly cost more than the life savings of someone who makes $6700 a year.  The only explanation is that my friends who got married must be much higher than the average 95% percentile.  Maybe they’re in the 99.99%.  There must be a lot of poor people in India — poor by U.S. standards — to bring down the average of the top 5%.