There’s a national debate taking place in the US of A about raising the minimum wage. While the politicians argue over the idea, some businesses—from major retailers to banks to private universities—have grown impatient and taken matters into their own hands over the last few years. Amazon increased its minimum wage to $15/hour almost five years ago now. This “resulted in a 4.7% increase in the average hourly wage among other employers in the same labor market (commuting zone).” Amazon says that research shows these kinds of increases fuel local economies and create growth.
Where I live, there’s no shortage of jobs available for people. There does seem to be a shortage of people who want to work 40 hours a week and still live near or below the poverty line.
For reference, because it kind of shocked me, the poverty line for a family of four is $26,500. A person who works full-time at our current national minimum wage earns $15,078 annually.
People point to the increase in the unemployment benefit this last year as the reason no one wants to work, but even before COVID, there were plenty of places hiring that couldn’t attract enough workers.
I’m not an economist, and I’m not that into politics most of the time, so why do I care about all of this? Because Jesus cares about fairness, and sometimes the Holy Spirit shoves stuff in front of my nose and says, “Write about this.” So. That’s what I’m doing today.
In the last couple of weeks, I read Kristin Hannah’s The Four Winds. The story follows a woman—Elsa—born in Texas right before the Great Depression. After years of trying to save the farm and stay on the land, she migrates out of the Dust Bowl with her family to California, the Promised Land, the land of milk and honey. Except California isn’t all that it was cracked up to be. Elsa wants to work, but the locals are afraid the “Okies”—the domestic migrants from the Dust Bowl—are going to take away their jobs and destroy their local economy. They are afraid they carry disease. They are afraid they will steal from them. They are afraid what they have will be taken and they’ll have nothing left.
It’s a scarcity mentality.
The people in the book who landed in California want to work. They desperately want to provide for their family. They don’t want to take the government’s handouts, but they have no other choice. Because there is no work that will pay them enough to survive, they have to take government relief aid. The alternative is starvation. The workers are willing to work for nearly nothing in order to just have something. Farm owners take advantage of their need and the glut of desperate workers available and keep dropping what they’re willing to pay.
Just last night, Brandon and I watched Episode 5 of Country Music, a documentary from Ken Burns available through PBS Documentaries on Amazon Prime. In it, Merle Haggard says, “The human being has a history of being awful cruel to something different. ‘Okie’ was not a good word, you know? They were talked down to, looked down on, might’ve been something comparable to the way they treated the blacks.”
Haggard was born in 1937 near Bakersfield where his parents had lived for three years, after a fire had destroyed their farm in Oklahoma. According to the documentary, Haggard’s father had found work on the railroad but still needed to find a permanent place to live. “There was a lady named Ms. Bona, who owned a lot with a boxcar on it, refrigerator car,” Haggard reflects. “And she said, ‘If you have the mind to be a hard enough worker you could probably make this into a pretty nice home,’ she said, ‘but I’ve never heard of an Okie that would work.’ And my dad took a little offense to that and he said, ‘Well, ma’am, I’ve never heard of one that wouldn’t work.’”
Aren’t these the words we’ve heard to describe “those people,” whoever they are, the low-lifes, the down-and-outs, the lazy whatevers who are riding the government dollar, taking advantage of the system, the people who just don’t want to work?
I’m sure there are “those people,” but just like everything broken in the world, people who are born down and out aren’t always given a beacon of hope to show them what it looks like to get up. They only see what’s working (or not working) around them and assume that’s it. This is how the world works. “Without vision,” says the Teacher in Proverbs 29:18, “the people perish.” Without someone to illuminate an alternative pathway, all we can see is whatever steps have been taken by the people immediately ahead of us.
“But those jobs,” we say about minimum wage gigs like food service, hotel housekeepers, personal care assistants, childcare workers, and retail workers, “were not intended for people who needed to make a living off of them.” We think of those positions as “supplemental income” types of jobs, and maybe for some people, they are. But teens don’t want those jobs—they have sports and clubs and babysitting gigs that pay cash-money, homey.
The teens and adults who want those jobs have to work. The teens have to work while they’re in school instead of playing sports or marching in the band or acting in the play, to try to help their families make it on below-poverty-level incomes, to try to buy a rundown car, to try to pay their way into community college, to try to escape the poverty they were probably born into. And the adults who need those jobs aren’t doing it for fun. They’re trying to patch together two or three different gigs to make ends meet while they raise their children single-handedly.
Right after I finished The Four Winds, I picked up a book I’ve been meaning to read for a couple of years now because a friend of mine has a chapter in it, called Can I Get a Witness? Thirteen Peacemakers, Community Builders, and Agitators for Faith & Justice. The very first chapter is about Cesar Chavez, who was “a shrewd union and community organizer who, with gritty creativity, sustained a quest for justice among farmworkers,” writes Daniel P. Rhodes. Cesar was an advocate for people like Elsa in The Four Winds, like Haggard’s family outside of Bakersfield. He worked alongside the fearful farmworkers who were stuck in a horrible loop of poverty and abuse to get them fair wages and unity against the corrupt farmers who had been taking advantage of their labor.
“Chavez always understood the movement to be about more than wages or contracts; it was a spiritual campaign. For him, the work of the union was woven inextricably into a fabric of religious significance,” writes Rhodes.
So what does Jesus have to do with it? Enter the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, or, as Kenneth Bailey in his wonderful book, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, preferred, the Parable of the Compassionate Employer:
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.
“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”Matthew 20:1-16
We are in the habit of valuing someone’s worth based on how much they can contribute, how much value they add. The vineyard owner in the parable is the great leveler who values all of the workers equally, no matter how much labor they were able to contribute.
The circumstances of the parable are not unlike the circumstances of the migrant workers in the West: they sat in a particular spot each day and waited for an opportunity to work. Of those who were hired last, Kenneth Bailey writes, “All that remains for the brave few left in the market is the humiliation of returning home to an anxious wife and hungry children with the bad news of another day of frustration and disappointment.”
He continues, “‘Equal pay for equal work’ is a centuries-old understanding of justice. But that is not the issue here. This parable presents the overpaid, not the underpaid. The story focuses on an equation filled with amazing grace, which is resented by those who feel that they have earned their way to more.”
The denarius was a full day’s wage, and all of them received that same pay. “This is not the cry of the underpaid,” writes Bailey. “No one is underpaid in this parable. The complaint is from the justly paid who cannot tolerate grace!”
In the face of the one who cries out, It’s not fair, God’s justice is scandalously generous, full of mercy and compassion.
Once again, I’m no economist. But if I take Jesus at his word, then as a follower of Christ, I must resist the scarcity mentality. I must not be afraid. If someone else gets more, that does not mean I’ll have less, or be less.
Maybe instead, I can help someone down on their luck draw a few steps closer to hope.
The compassionate vineyard owner sees the value of a soul, and gives him his daily bread, no matter how small or great the job.