I always come down hard on memes and other click bait shares, but I hesitate to get down in the weeds. I worry that readers will get distracted by the specifics of a particular issue and miss the bigger picture. But the other day when I was praying about whether to respond to something I saw online, it came into my mind that I should blog about it instead. It’s easy to miss the ways in which the things we share conflict with Gospel values. Maybe a concrete example is in order.
Those of us brought up on the idea of raising ourselves up by our bootstraps are conditioned to leap to our feet and applaud sentiments like this, but it’s not a Christlike reaction.
Problem One: The Question of Living Wage Has Big Implications
The assumption here is that minimum wage is actually just fine where it is, that the problem is with the person’s motivation. But it’s been well documented that minimum wage is below a living wage in many parts of the country. (That link comes from investopedia, which is rated “least biased.”)
Why on earth would a follower of Jesus Christ champion a belief that there are, in fact, workers who do not deserve to earn a living wage? That would be like suggesting that there are, in fact, people who do not deserve to be born. I know a lot of people will protest the analogy, but human dignity is human dignity. Either we’re all made in God’s image, with the same basic dignity and the same basic needs, or we’re not. People who believe in the dignity of the unborn should be more, not less, protective of the dignity of human beings who are between womb and tomb.
There’s another abortion connection here. According to the above article, fast food workers tend to be low-income women, and this Market Watch article shows 75% of abortions are obtained by low-income women. (Market Watch is labeled “slight right bias,” so this is no liberal conspiracy.) If we want to help mothers choose life, the Christlike thing to do is advocate for higher wages, not belittle workers in low-paid industries, as this meme does.
Problem Two: Who Deserves a Living Wage?
The underlying assumption of this entire post is: the work done by people in fast food industry is, of and by its very nature, not deserving of earning a living wage. What makes a roofer or a surveyor so much more valuable than a person who prepares and serves your food?
Those who commented on that post kept saying fast food jobs are for high schoolers. But high schoolers are in, y’know, high school. Who’s supposed to work the breakfast and lunch shifts?
The reality is, as long as we, the American public, insist upon the convenience of fast food, fast food will always need adult workers. We want fast food to be cheap, and one of the easiest ways companies achieve that is by paying low wages. As long as we support that system by visiting the golden arches or the bell, we’re a big part of the reason it exists.
Side note: I’m really struggling with Amazon for the same reason. But that’s a whole different post. The point is that blaming the workers for being victims of a system we willingly and eagerly participate in is not Christlike behavior.
Problem Three: The Big Picture
Christians should have another problem with this post: the assumption that people are only in these jobs because they’re lazy. “Get a better job, if you don’t like your wage!”
This is an example of middle class (and probably white) privilege. I worked fast food, and this is precisely what I did. But I worked fast food while I was getting a good education to prepare me to trade up jobs, and while I was safely housed at home by people paying for my food, lodging, clothes, utilities, and everything else.
In other words, I had a lot of help pulling myself up by my bootstraps. For people like me, the “get a better job” argument works just fine.
But it should be eminently clear that in America, opportunity is NOT equal. For example, in education. How often do people pack up their entire lives and move because the school boundaries change and they think they’re about to get sent to the “bad school”? If that isn’t a tacit acknowledgment that educational opportunity is vastly uneven, I don’t know what is.
There are rich schools and poor schools because there are richer and poorer enclaves. Higher socioeconomic classes work very hard to avoid ending up on the wrong side of that equation. We work hard to avoid “bad” neighborhoods and suburbs and the people within them. We won’t live near “them” and we definitely won’t let our kids go to school with “them.” So our schools get the boost in funding that comes with high property values, and “their” schools don’t. Uneven, unequal. Done.
And for a lot of kids growing up in homes where life itself is a struggle, it’s a generational problem. It’s not that a kid can’t break out of that cycle–but they have to work a whole lot harder than you or I do to get half as far. Judging them for their failure is completely contrary to the Christian call.
Problem Four: The Big Picture, Part B
Finally, let’s talk about that theoretical guy who was theoretically challenged to get a theoretical job and theoretically said he wasn’t interested. Maybe this really happened, maybe it didn’t. But even if it did happen, leaping to the conclusion that this guy is just lazy is still unworthy of a follower of Christ.
Let’s say this man is 25 and has a wife and kid. He’s working 30 hours a week at McDonald’s (because jobs like that are rarely offered full-time, because full-time means offering benefits, which would raise costs). According to what I found when I searched “how to become a land surveyor,” the author was wrong; this job does require training–and a license. And is vastly helped by a solid educational foundation. When is this theoretical training? Is he going to have to ask off work for it? What if he has a second job, working 25 hours one place and 25 hours in another, and the training overlaps both? Is the training paid? If not, can he afford to ask off work to take it?
Where is the training? Is it far enough away that he’d have to work out transportation he doesn’t have? What if his wife has a job, too, and they work opposite shifts to avoid the cost of child care? What if both of them have to skip shifts in order to make this work? And if they’re living close to the bone, are they going to be able to survive until the training is done?
Then there’s the roofing example. What if he has foot problems? Equilibrium problems? A debilitating fear of heights? What if he’s not in good enough physical shape? Sure, he should get in shape, but that too requires time and very likely money (gym membership, anyone?). The author is presupposing that this man is exactly like him, and the only thing separating them is the motivation.
The point of this extremely long post is that these glib, judgy things we like to put hearts and thumbs-up on and share are way more complex in reality than they look on social media. As Christians, we should be looking for the total picture of justice, not pointing at the easy target while we are active participants in the systems that make upward mobility so hard on anyone who isn’t already above a certain threshold.
“Judge not, lest you be judged.” (Mt. 7:1)
2 Replies to “When Memes Are Unworthy of Christ”
This is an extremely helpful analysis. Your closer look at the details of the opportunity of being a land surveyor or a roofer makes it clear just how glib these kinds of “helpful suggestions” often are. I’m sometimes critical of the way in which ideas about “privilege” can be overused, but this is a good example of a very legitimate way in which privilege can blind people to reality.
The job market has been a hard one for me over the years. I’ve spent some time trying to find jobs exactly along the lines of the suggestions in the online example you cited. What I’ve found time and time again is that the most simple, obvious ideas often turn out to be immensely more complicated than it would seem from someone who has never seriously tried to attain those jobs. There have been times when I have been immensely frustrated and just about despairing of ever finding any job I could really attain and keep–given my abilities, personality, life conditions, etc. And things have worked our for me immensely better than they have for many other people who haven’t gotten the breaks I have. It’s given me a strong sympathy for the realities people so often have to live through, realities that well-meaning people who have never been there have trouble seeing and believing in sometimes.
And then you raise, again, the question of how our regular habits can make us accomplices of systematic injustice. “As long as we support that system by visiting the golden arches or the bell, we’re a big part of the reason it exists.” Ugh! What do we do with that? How do we live in a way that balances prudence with justice in the right way?
I wish someone would write a book analyzing these kinds of issues thoroughly and concretely in terms of both the ethics and the economics, not just pointing out the problems but giving a practical analysis of what we are ethically required to do and how, in practice, we can go about doing it prudently and efficiently. Do you know of any resources like that?
In the meantime, thank you for taking the time to keep calling our attention to these things. Your article format is very helpful to me. You get right to the heart of important issues so well and so succinctly, I am able to read and learn things in the midst of very busy days where I wouldn’t necessarily have time to read longer articles. You are doing a very valuable service!
I’ve often wondered (in the best of ways, as in “awe”) at the generosity your family has shown in your faith, in the most uncertain of circumstances. Thank you for sharing your story, which goes to show that even white men don’t all have the same leg up!
As for the analysis–yes, that would sure help, wouldn’t it? Surely someone has done that analysis, we just don’t know where it is. It seems like something our clergy could and should be trained to help us sort out, doesn’t it? It seems the very thing that homilies are made for.
The best I can come up with (and here I am drawing solely on my own pondering) is that this is the reason why we need governmental intervention. Because a boycott isn’t feasible; if you and I boycott Amazon, McDonald’s & Taco Bell, they couldn’t possibly care less. If, somehow, we manage to get the whole Catholic Church on board, *maybe* it would make a difference, but the reality is that we are dependent upon these staples of modern life as much as anyone else. I would pay more for the goods on Amazon, just to be able to make purchases in a single location that I know to be reputable. But they’re not going to raise prices just because I’m willing to pay more to make their working conditions better, you know? Federal regulation and/or laws can effect these changes in an efficient manner. Because why should we have to create a new cause for every injustice in the world, and who has the time and energy to organize a successful boycott of one thing, and the next thing, and then the next, in order to get companies to better reflect our values? It just seems like the desire for low-regulation, small government is, in fact, hampering the work of furthering the Kingdom.