“It’s about cheap labor,” says my friend Eric, an African American businessman. “It was about cheap labor then [when America’s wealth was founded on slavery] and it’s about cheap labor now.” Eric is not a radical. He might even be seen as a conservative in some of his views. He and I were meeting to discuss plans for a dialogue involving two Episcopal churches – one predominantly black, the other majority white – that we will facilitate together next year. The extent to which race and class are inextricably woven together becomes ever more obvious in the current political climate. “Race is a decoy,” says Eric. This observation echoes the view of many commentators who see racial fears, prejudices, stereotypes and resentments being used as a political lever to achieve the goal of an unrestrained “free market” (free for some), to steadily reduce support for public institutions, and to attack legislation that supports the health, safety and earnings of American workers. One of the most interesting, unexpected, and hopeful events of recent weeks is the courageous action of Governor John Kasich of Ohio, a Republican, who overrode the majority votes of his own party in both houses, and decided to extend Medicaid to poor adults and people with disabilities who do not currently quality. Kasich has stated that Christian compassion and economic good sense drove his decision. Kasich told his fellow Republicans, “When you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small, but he’s going to ask you what you did for the poor. You’d better have a good answer.”The attacks on Kasich reveal the true face of ruthless materialism. Surely the best in all our faith traditions goes hand in hand with good economics. Conversely, economic policies that are morally indefensible will not in the long run turn out to be sustainable. Doing the right thing generally turns out to be good for business. It’s time for Republicans of character to stand up like Kasich. Democrats also need to lay aside the focus on political advantage and be willing to talk seriously about entitlement reform. Both Republicans and Democrats need to start talking about poverty which is at the core of the challenge facing the country. For too long we have lived with the indulgence of a low-wage economy. The fact that half of all public school children (most of whose parents are working) receive free or reduced lunch in the richest country on earth should make us all feel ashamed. If conservatives are really serious about reducing government programs, the best thing they could do would be to support a radical increase in the Federal minimum wage from the current $7.25 to something closer to $15. If hard-working American were earning decent wages they would not have to turn to food stamps; they would not have to work two or three jobs, thereby jeopardizing their family life; they would not be crowding our hospital emergency rooms; and they would not have to live in subsidized housing. You can’t on the one hand call for less government spending and on the other hand persist in paying the lowest wage the market will bear. A living wage – a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work
is a truly deeply conservative solution to poverty because it puts equal responsibility on employer and employee.