I’ll never forget the first time I sat down with a nurse’s aide who was struggling financially, confident that with some commonsense “belt-tightening,” I could get her budget back on track. Just few minutes in, I started to sweat. She already shopped at Aldi and the Salvation Army. She had a pay-as-you-go cellphone, just for emergencies. She set her thermostat at 63 degrees. There was nothing to trim.
And when I added up her expenses and subtracted them from income, the resulting figure was $3. $3. The entire financial cushion of a woman working full-time at a societally useful job in the richest country in the world was less than the cost of a gallon of milk.
I was speechless.
She read my expression and smiled wryly, forgoing the “I told you so” I so clearly deserved. “I can’t ‘tighten my belt,’” she said quietly. “There is nothing left to tighten.”
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 were willing to impoverish our fellow citizens for a cheaper hamburger. Then they will condemn us for it.