Image by Bettmann/CORBIS
In a society that lacks solidarity, misfortune, except that of the most random kind, is viewed as the fault of those who suffer from it. If we believe that poorly compensated workers somehow deserve lousy wages, then we absolve ourselves of the impoverishment we have inflicted upon them. Edward McClelland notes (boldface mine):
If you try hard enough, you can usually come up with a reason a low-wage worker doesn’t deserve to earn a living. If Kim Brown had been willing to move to Cleveland, she would still have her Web support job; if she had chosen a more marketable major than creative writing, she might have found full-time work in Chicago. But no matter Brown’s life choices, her $8.50 an hour job would still exist, not providing a living for someone else.
This is why the belief that education is the primary way to reduce poverty is the quintessential neo-liberal policy: it breaks apart the bonds of solidarity that any society needs. As long as there is a job that does not pay a living wage, one of us will have to fill it. We can either create after-the-fact justifications for impoverishing our fellow citizens or we can ensure all jobs have some modicum of dignity attached to them. I’m pretty certain which option this radical preferred:
If you will judge anything here in this struggle, you’re commanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the worth and significance of those who are not in professional jobs, or those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight, that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity, and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth. One day our society must come to see this….
…you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages….
Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working everyday? They are making wages so low that they can not begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation. These are facts which must be seen. And it is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job getting part-time income.
…But it seems that I can hear the God of the universe saying, “even though you’ve done all of that, I was hungry and you fed me not. I was naked and ye clothed me not. The children of my sons and daughters were in need of economic security, and you didn’t provide for them. So you cannot enter the kingdom of greatness.”
Future generations will wonder how so many of us could have been so callous and cruel.