response: May 2018 Issue

Overworked and Undervalued

Understanding women, race and the economy is key to changing unjust economic systems.

Overworked and Undervalued
United Methodist Women members participate in United for a Fair Economy’s economic justice workshop at the 2015 National Seminar in Chicago.

Editor’s note: This Bible study is adapted from a workshop from the 2015 United Methodist Women National Seminar. The full workshop including materials is available at Taking Action: Educating Ourselves on Economic Justice.

United Methodist Women members are leaders seeking to forge a path toward justice. We work to promote economic justice in the context of growing income and wealth inequality. To do this we need to reflect on our own experiences of the economy as well as on the experience of those most affected by growing inequities. What are the forces causing the growing divide?

How can we take action?

“The economy” means more than the stock market or gross domestic product. We all have an experience of the economy—as consumers, workers and community members. Our own experiences tell us about the economy and inequality and how we can come together as women of faith to transform our economy for the better.

Signs of the economic times

"If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday." —Isaiah 58:10

When you look at the economy, what effects, good and bad, do you see on your family, community, church and nation? High student debt? Health care costs? Write some examples down and share your answers . What connections do you see between these “signs of the economic times”?

Many of us are seeing the effects of an economy that appears increasingly out of kilter. People are working longer hours with less job security. Our wages can’t keep up with costs. We see mounting personal and household debt. We see immigrants and youth of color attacked and scapegoated. How has the face of the economy changed over the past decade? We need to go beyond the symptoms and get to the root causes of the problems if we are going to design a successful strategy for a just economy and a government that is accountable to working people and their families.

Who benefits?

"Those who exploit the powerless anger their maker, while those who are kind to the poor honor God." —Proverbs 14:31

Some examples of income are wages, salary, savings interest, social security, capital gains, stock dividends and gifts. Economists often talk about the U.S. population in quintiles, or fifths of the population. They divide the population into five equal parts representing income levels: $0–27,794, $27,794–49,788, $49,788–76,538, $76,538–119,001 and $119,001 and up.

Now imagine that each quintile is a person, and the five people are standing side by side. To demonstrate which groups have seen an increase or decrease in income from 1972–2012, next imagine each quintile taking steps forward or back. Each step equals a 5 percent change. The quintiles are in order from lowest to highest.  

• First quintile: Take 2.5 steps back. This is a decrease in income of 12 percent.

• Second quintile: No steps forward or back. No increase or decrease of income.

• Third quintile: 1.5 steps forward, an increase of 8 percent.

• Fourth quintile: 4 steps forward, an increase of 20 percent.

• Fifth quintile: 10 steps forward. Highest earners saw an increase of 49 percent.

Breaking down the fifth quintile, the incomes of the top 5 percent—incomes of $200,000 and up—grew 75 percent. That’s 15 steps forward. The top 1 percent saw a gain of 185 percent, which would be 37 steps from the starting line. The top .1 percent gained 384 percent, and the top 0.01 percent gained an almost unbelievable 685 percent (137 steps)! 

Think of the people behind these numbers. The lowest quintile represents cashiers, bus drivers, fast food workers, personal care assistants, low level military personnel, janitors and similar occupations. The second quintile includes administrative assistants, telemarketers, carpenters, community organizers, landscapers, receptionists, adjunct professors, bank tellers, secretaries, teachers. Middle quintile: Accountants, associate professors, nonprofit managers, higher education administrators, financial analysts, flight attendants. Fourth quintile: Engineers, nursing and other supervisors, some nonprofit directors. Top quintile: Attorneys, chemical engineers, business analysts and consultants, college deans, managers, doctors, physicians, programmers. Top 1 percent: Executives, supervisors, CEOs, some lawyers in the financial sector or who work for the richest corporations (pharmaceutical, health care, oil, telecommunications, big box retail), top-paid athletes and movie stars.

Devaluing women’s work 

"Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due." —Romans 4:4  

In 2015 a woman working full time, year-round, still earned $10,800 less per year than a man according to an April 2016 report of the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress. The same study reports that women of color face even larger gender pay gaps: African-American women are paid only 60 cents and Latinas only 55 cents on the dollar compared to white men. 

Some of the underlying realities that maintain gender inequality include women being concentrated in the low-wage workforce and that child-rearing, elder care and work in the home is unpaid work performed largely by women. Per the National Women’s Law Center, women are only 46 percent of the total workforce but make up three-quarters of low-wage workers. And women spend an average of 21 hours of unpaid work per week compared to men’s 13.

Many families of color and single mothers are highly concentrated among low-income households. This inequity has been institutionalized and preserved over decades and has outlived legal segregation. There remains a huge chasm among racial groups in terms of income. For example, the income gap between white people and African Americans has increased since 1947.

Wealth divide

"How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?" —1 John 3:17

Wealth is private assets minus liabilities (debt). Simply put, wealth is what you own minus what you owe. Wealth is what you have in the bank and the property and investments you own. Some assets owned by lower income people may be cash, furniture or car. Middle income assets could be cash, equity in a house, small business, some stock or retirement fund. The assets of the top 1 percent include real estate, large stock and bond holdings, businesses, artwork and other collectibles. It is possible to have negative wealth—17 percent of the population in 2010 had no assets or negative assets: they owe more than they own.

So far we have concentrated on income inequality, but wealth inequality is even more profound. Data from the 2012 census shows that median net worth for African Americans was $4,995, and for white people it was $110,729. Latino/a was $7,424, and Asian $69,590. Another slightly older analysis of the National Longitudinal Survey on Youth from 2000 shows Native American wealth at $5,700, only 8.7 percent of median wealth for the population as a whole. The richest 10 percent in this country owns 74 percent of the wealth, meaning 90 percent of the U.S. population shares only 34 percent of the wealth.

Income growth before 1979

"Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back."—Luke 6:38

Though it may feel like it, the economy has not always been structured in a way that benefits only those of higher incomes. In fact, from 1947-1979 all U.S. quintiles saw growth in income: 116 percent for first quintile, 100 percent for second, 111 percent for third, 114 percent for fourth, and 99 percent for the fifth. 

Social movements were a primary reason that quintiles grew more evenly during this period. From the Civil Rights Movement to the labor movement of the 1930s and 1940s, the women’s movement, and the immigrant rights movement, people organizing and using their power strategically pushed legislators to change the rules to lift up the 99 percent. People of faith, including United Methodist Women members, have often played a vital role in these movements.

Rule changes and policy shift

"Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts." —James 5:4

Power in the United States has shifted since the 1970s. Groups seeing a decline are voters, labor unions, wage earners, employees and Main Street. Those increasing in power are corporate lobbyists, big campaign donors, banks, corporations, CEOs and Wall Street. Which of these factors had greatest influence on the signs of the economic times you identified? 

The following are some of the policy changes that led us to where we are today:

• Minimum wage: The minimum wage has not been raised to keep up with inflation and increased cost of living.

• Unions: Anti-union climate weakens the power and voice of workers.

• Trade: Global treaties benefit corporations, not workers or communities.

• Taxes: Taxes shifted from big investors and corporations to workers.

• Budget: Public services have been cut. Corporate subsidies expand.

• Privatization: Government outsourcing plus no-bid contracts hurts taxpayers, workers and public safety.

• Criminalization: People of color are targeted, keeping racial wealth divide in place.

This frightening growth in inequality was not an act of nature or some other great mystery. It is the outcome of specific policy choices, made by human beings.

God’s economy, our economy 

"Don’t take advantage of poor or needy workers, whether they are fellow Israelites or immigrants who live in your land or your cities." —Deuteronomy 24:14-15 (CEB)

What is one value that the current economy represents? Greed? Competition? What values would be present in God’s economy? 

Make two columns on chart paper, one for current values and one for values of God’s economy. What types of policies would support the values that represent God’s economy? For example, if “fairness” were offered as a value, what policy changes would reflect fairness? 

Looking at the policies that would move us toward a just economy, which are areas where United Methodist Women could get involved? What are issues you could take on in your conference? Where are there local struggles that you can support? It’s important to recognize multiple entry points into this fight for economic justice—education, researching local issues and partners, service and advocacy. The United Methodist Women economic justice Web page offers resources for education and action: economic-justice.

Together with God we can make living wages a reality and create a more just economy for all. 

United for a Fair Economy is a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that supports social movements working for a resilient, sustainable and equitable economy.

Understanding women, race and the economy is key to changing unjust economic systems.

Posted or updated: 5/5/2018 12:00:00 AM