“To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships.” – W.E.B. Du Bois
No discussion of poverty, and of the need to renew opportunity in America, can be complete without a frank consideration of the situation faced by Native Americans. With a worsening economy, the inevitable churn of holiday stories about the least fortunate, and a new Administration, now is the right time for meaningful action to address poverty in Native American communities.
The modern history of Native Americans has been marred by tragedy and injustice, and too often deprivation and suffering within Native American communities has been met with sentiment that shocks the conscience.
In 1862, the American government refused to honor treaty obligations to the Dakota Sioux Indians during a time of widespread starvation. When tribal leaders, desperate for relief, asked for food on credit because the U.S. government had failed to provide moneys owed, an associate of the local Indian agent replied, “If they are hungry, let them eat grass or their own dung.” His comment, and the crass disregard it represented, helped to spark the infamous and bloody confrontation between the tribe and the federal government now known as the Dakota War.
Although we have moved beyond wanton neglect and violence, our national response to the problem of poverty in Native American communities remains woefully inadequate.
“Violence never brings permanent peace….Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding: it seeks to annihilate rather than convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible….Violence ends up defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.” -Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1989 a politically naïve college graduate with a love for the Bible took her first trip to Israel. Like so many US Americans wed to the story of the “promised land,” I was drawn toward this tiny slip of earth an ocean and a continent away. I spent two weeks there doing what Christian tourists do. I walked Jerusalem, taking in its Muslim and Jewish and Christian quarters, smelling the mix of fresh cardamom and urine and just-worked leather bags in the dappled dark of Old City passageways. I felt intoned prayer at the Western wall reverberate from the scrubbed streets of the Jewish quarter; ambled through the archeological ruins, underground and above; surveyed the Temple Mount; and entered the stunning mosque of Al-Aqsa (smelling feet, I wondered simultaneously about its placement atop the Second Temple ruins…At the time, I was not thinking about things Islam—or things Roman). I remember using a ridiculous mix of classical and modern Hebrew to order cheese pizza, proud of myself in self-parody. Hopping a bus to see a model of the old ‘City of David,’ I was shocked back to reality by the Shoah survivor sitting next to me (Her tattoo was as unfaded as it was unhidden by her white cotton shift.). The next day, I visited Yad v’Shem and the Chagall windows—the juxtaposition difficult—and paid to have an “eternity peace tree” planted on a nearby hill. Two other days were filled by long bus drives, first north through the West Bank desert to Jericho, the Jordan, the Galilee and Capernaum, and then south to Qumran, Masada, and the Dead Sea (for while there was discord then, travel through the West Bank was not blocked by walls and check points; perhaps even now I would not be prevented from passing freely, since I am not Palestinian, and so for me, both the roads and the parable of the Good Samaritan make material and geographic sense).
In Just A Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, T. Carlos Anderson explores these questions. Defining “religion” as “ultimate concern,” Anderson argues that the true religion of the United States is the confluence of commerce, materialism, and consumption, and that the country’s true devotion is the pursuit of material wealth at the expense of the common good. Anderson carefully examines three eras of excess in U.S. American history–the Gilded Age, the 1920s, and the current age that began in the late 1970s and helped bring about the economic swoon of 2007-08–to argue that democracy and egalitarianism, as America’s two greatest achievements, are the substance of the common good, exist only when advocated for, and all three are suffering near death under the weight of economic inequity. What follows is chapter five, “America’s True Religion: Commerce, Materialism, and Consumerism,” in a book of eight very smart chapters. Chapter five narrates both the secularization of distinctively Christian religious impulses to support “America’s True Religion” and details the rise of the economic neoliberalism that is so thoroughly impacting capitalism today. The last, “Economic Democracy,” argues for a new egalitarian economic approach to the common good that avoids both the regression and idolatry of inequality in favor of sustainability, coexistence, compassion and cooperation.
T. Carlos “Tim” Anderson is a bilingual Protestant minister in Austin, Texas who has previously lived and worked in Chicago, Houston, and Lima, Peru. For copies of Just A Little Bit More, interview requests, and other inquiries, contact T. Carlos “Tim” Anderson at the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website, www.blueocotillo.com.
America’s True Religion: Commerce, Materialism, and Consumption
Dawn Hughey routinely put in seventy-hour workweeks as a retail store manager, making about $35,000 a year as a salaried employee. Abel Lopez had the same type of job, worked the same long hours, and brought home an equivalent amount of pay. Hughey managed a Dollar General store in Detroit and Lopez a Family Dollar store in El Paso; they both performed the same tasks as did the sales associates under their supervision: unloading trucks, stocking shelves, cleaning toilets, running cash registers, doing inventory, moving boxes. Since Hughey and Lopez were categorized as managers, they were exempted from receiving overtime pay. When one does the math, both made a little less than ten dollars an hour. Until they were fired, that is.
The 1938 Fair Labor and Standards Act put in place the forty-hour workweek, mandated a minimum wage, established overtime pay at a rate of time and a half, and further regimented child labor law. This federal statute—still enforced today by the Department of Labor—also exempts “executive” and “administrative” salaried employees from receiving overtime pay, as long as they make more than $455 a week. The statute specifies that executive and administrative employees are to manage the work environment, to direct other workers under their supervision, and not to engage in manual labor. This last provision serves a double purpose: to distinguish managerial work from manual labor and to ensure that manual laborers are not taken advantage of. In the growing economy of era the mid-twentieth century, the line of demarcation between managers and laborers was clear. In today’s stagnant service economy, workers like Hughey and Lopez perform the tasks of traditional management while also doing anything else needed, because they don’t have the budget to staff more workers. Putting in more hours—many more—is sometimes the only difference between supervisors and their subordinates.