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Labor Day — an opportunity to remember the working poor

Rightly observed, Labor Day provides a unique opportunity for Americans of all political persuasions — liberal and conservative, Democrat, Republican and Independent — to give thanks for the contributions made by workers of all stripes to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country for more than 230 years.

In remembering those contributions, however, let us not forget that in the world’s most prosperous nation, millions of our fellow citizens struggle to afford food and shelter even though they work 40 hours a week.

This is more than a political problem. For those with a conscience, it is also a moral wrong. For the religious, it is a spiritual outrage.

Take for example, Joanne, a white mother of two. Joanne was forced to leave her apartment to protect herself against her husband who regularly beat her when she forgot to buy his favorite cheese at the grocery store. Fortunately, she lived close to a town in which a group of citizens accepted their religious and moral responsibilities to help abused spouses and their children by providing food and shelter.

Joanne hoped to get a job that paid enough for her and the kids to move into their own apartment. She interviewed with several employers and was finally able to secure a full-time job (40 hours per week) at minimum wage ($7.25). Which meant that her monthly salary before deductions was $1,160. The average monthly rental for a two-bedroom apartment in her part of the state, however, was $638, leaving her with $522 for food, transportation, school supplies, clothes and medical bills.

Most American workers make more than the minimum wage, but, like Joanne, 30% earn less than $10 per hour. And most of them are the neighbors we depend upon every day to clean our office buildings, serve us at restaurants, repair our cars, handpick our vegetables and mow our lawns.

Like Joanne, they work hard, day in and day out, but struggle to afford the essentials of life. Many find it necessary to hold down two jobs to make ends meet.

The Judeo-Christian tradition, which the great majority of Americans adhere to, offers what many today might consider a politically incorrect perspective on the poor.

In place of advising the working poor to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, Proverbs 22 warns the rich to refrain from manipulating the legal system to “crush” the poor in courts of law. (vs. 22-23)

The Epistle or Letter of James (aka The Rock) has startlingly harsh warnings for the rich who have treated others badly: “Next a word for those who have great possessions. Weep and wail over the miserable fate descending upon you … the wages you never paid to the men who mowed your fields are loud against you, and the outcry of the reapers has reached the ears of the Lord of Hosts.” (James 5:1,4).

James also considers it bitter irony that some early Christians showed what he calls partiality to the rich. According to James, there were churches in the first century in which churchgoers favored rich people who came to services dressed in nice clothes and expensive jewelry. Escorted, no doubt, by a treasurer with renewed hopes of balancing the church budget.

They were offered the best seats in the house, while the poor and the poorly dressed were seated where they would not offend anyone. Try sitting a homeless person next to the lady with expensive jewelry; see what kind of looks you get.

Later in his letter, James turns up the heat. The rich, he writes, hoard wealth instead of sharing it; they live in luxury while withholding wages from workers; and they glory in their indulgence.

The wealthy are not called out just for being rich — that, in itself, is not a sin — but for failing to notice the suffering of the working poor and sharing some of their surplus with them.

Helping the poor, both those with jobs and those without, is an equal opportunity for persons of all religious and political persuasions, or none. You don’t even have to be religious to see a moral duty to assist those struggling to provide for themselves and their children. It’s just the right thing to do.

So what’s stopping us?

Polk Culpepper is a retired Episcopal priest and former lawyer who resides in Washington.