In my last blog, I described a recent drive through America’s heartland to visit relatives. “Along the way, we started to notice that many interstate fast-food restaurants were closed except for drive-thru service. We initially reasoned that local governments still imposed indoor Covid restrictions. After some research, we were surprised to learn that businesses were struggling to rehire employees. We spotted employment billboards for truck drivers, store staff, restaurant workers, and other hourly wage jobs. The US Department of Labor estimated unemployment at 6% (March 2021), but also stated that there are 7.4 million unfilled positions. How can both be true?”
In this blog, I want to concentrate on those unemployed Americans who made the economic decision not to return to work and live off their unemployment payments. I am assuming that there are employment opportunities since the government has estimated that there are 7.4 million unfilled positions. Our road trip and Austin-area observations give credence to the recent news that businesses need hourly-wage employees to return to work. What are Christians to do when faced with accepting better unemployment payments or going back to work?
This is a complex problem, both for individuals, businesses, and our government. Theologically, humans are created to work. I detailed the theology of work in my book, Trading with God. Christians self-actualize, support their community, and contribute towards the new creation through their work. Work is fundamental to our being and is supported by Scripture. Sitting at home drawing unemployment benefits when employment is available goes against our God-given human nature.
A counter economic argument is that if the government unemployment benefits equal or exceed the economic benefits of employment, then why take the financially unattractive employment? For parents with children who are not in school or care for elderly relatives, why return to work if not required? Staying at home to care for family, if subsidized by government assistance, is an attractive alternative and supports community. It is difficult to discount this economic reasoning, although at a macro-level, the government is paying for this aid through deficit spending which encumbers future generations. Our prosperous nation should pay their bills.
Another argument is for employers to pay a wage that attracts workers back into the market. A long-standing economic premise is that the higher minimum wage causes less employment. This premise is weakened by the current 6% unemployment rate and over 7 million jobs available. The current US minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, but it varies regionally. The highest local minimum wage is $16.84 in the San Francisco suburb of Emeryville. Raising the minimum wage to the current higher unemployment benefit level (with the added federal subsidy) and requiring workers to work at this pay or lose their unemployment benefits would eliminate the economic justification that keeps people from working.
A counter argument is that rising wages causes inflation. The current inflation rate is 1.8% (YOY) but is rising and expected to go higher. This erodes buying power and economically impacts the poor and those living on fixed incomes as they do not have investments that can offset inflation. Food, transportation, housing, medical, and other human basic needs will incur price increases and require more income. It is a vicious economic cycle that can quickly get out-of-hand, as I experienced during the 1970s and 1980s.
How are Christians to weigh-in on this complex issue? First, all able-bodied workers need to make a livable income that covers basic housing, food, and medical care, but cannot if employed at the current minimum wage. Inequality between the wealthy and bottom 50% of Americans has been rising since the 1970s as demonstrated in a recent Financial Times article, The Billionaire Boom: How the Super-rich Soaked Up Covid Cash (Ruchir Sharma, May 13, 2021). In the 1970’s, the share of US net personal wealth held by the bottom 50% of US household personal wealth was roughly equal to the top 0.01%, about 2% of net personal wealth. In 2019, the top 0.01% have over 9% of US net personal wealth while the bottom 50% have less than 2%. Clearly, the wealthy can share more with the bottom 50% and still have plenty left over. For example, the wealthy can contribute towards basic health insurance for Americans without health insurance or to those underinsured.
Second, earning a livable wage gives back to the community through federal tax, Social Security and Medicare payments. Employment allows workers to upgrade their God-given gifts. Self-actualization through work while serving the community contributes to our personal well-being. On our recent road trip, we noticed that Starbucks was busy with customers and fully staffed. They pay higher than minimum wage and give employees benefits like health insurance, tuition reimbursement, and a retirement plan.
Jesus preached about the injustices within his Jewish community. Most Jews lived at a subsistence level under rulers who imposed heavy tax burdens on the poor. In speaking to a Pharisee who invited Jesus to dine with him, Jesus admonished him: “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God.” (Luke 11:42 NRSV). I encourage workers to return to work, employers to pay livable wages, and the wealthy to give abundantly. All three are necessary to take a step towards the new creation.