Summer Came Early

Jun 28, 2010

Summer came early in Charlotte this year; well before the solstice the heat soared into the 90’s with humidity to match. Now we’ve endured a two-week long heat wave with no relief, not even from the frequent thunder showers that were predicted in the area, but failed to materialize. As each day heats up, the cicadas call out noisily. I often garden after 7 pm to avoid the heat of the day, but still the sweat pours down my face and soaks my shirt and pants, while the cicadas’ song of clicks seemingly gets louder and louder as I work. Thank heavens for air conditioning!!!  I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1940’s and 50’s when there was no air conditioning in cars or homes, so I really appreciate the air in my house, car, and stores, etc.

Even with the air conditioning, I am undone by the extreme heat. I can understand why the people who live in the tropics and like climates walk slower and pace themselves during the languid days of summer. I don’t remember as a child being bothered by the heat until I went to bed at night—then I felt like I slept in a puddle in my bed as the temperatures dropped maybe 10 degrees overnight. Now I avoid the outside except to walk from my car to store, restaurant or church. The only time I love to be outside is on my bike in the hour before sundown when the breeze as I ride offsets the heat of the ride. I love the feel of the wind on my face.

These days I am overheating inside, too. As I do the research for my book on the kingdom of heaven, I am reading  John Dominic Crossan’s book, The Historical Jesus: the Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. I am learning things that make my blood boil. Crossan describes the economic system under the Roman Empire in Palestine.  The majority of the people are peasants, working the land at a near subsistence level. Between the taxes due the Romans, the need to feed their animals and the need to set aside enough seed for the next season, the peasant is lucky to enjoy more than 10% of the yield of his land. By Crossan’s reckoning, using an example from 14th and 15th C. Germany, one that illustrates what peasants across the centuries have been able to yield from their land, this translates into a diet of 1600 calories* a day for each of the peasant family, an amount that I consider a weight-losing diet for my not very active lifestyle.  *p. 126, Crossan. The 1st Century C.E. peasant, on the other hand, is eating a meager diet for his day-long labor, which to my (admittedly amateur)  reckoning should take at least 3500 to 4500 calories to replace his labor/calorie output.

Peasants throughout history have been judged for their stolid, seemingly unintelligent presence. And yet they have been forced into a marginal life that is very difficult to escape. Think of the European serfs, the New World slaves in America and the Caribbean, the miners of the 20th C. in Appalachia or textile workers in the South who lived in company towns(they were issued script instead of money that they could only spend in the company-owned store) or the Walmart and other discount store, nursing home and fast-food workers of today who are not allowed to work more than 36 hours a week, and probably do work even less, with no benefits. For the peasant, or what we would call the lower economic classes today, it doesn’t matter what the economic system they work under—capitalism, empire, communism or other—the result is the same meager existence.

For the past year here in Charlotte I have been a Crisis Assistance Ministry interviewer of clients looking for short-term emergency help so they can stay in their homes or apartments and not spiral down into homelessness. Most of our clients are today’s counterpart to 1st C. C.E. peasants; they have jobs in fast-food restaurants, nursing homes and discount stores like Walmart. Few have benefits. They are hard working, but living at the limits of their income. One medical bill or car-repair bill or some other emergency during one month may mean that they can’t afford to pay their rent or electric bill or other utility bill. They don’t have credit cards; some have loans to pay off, most often to family and friends. The average rent our clients pay is $600-800.  Utilities often run from $150 to $300 a month.

Financial advisors have long recommended that rent should consume about 1/3 of your income. From my experience at Crisis, however, I believe that we have to factor in rent and utilities so that no more than 50% of net income goes for rent, electricity, gas and water. For the working poor in Charlotte who take home around $1200. a month, once they pay out $600. for rent plus $200. for utilities, have only $400. left over for food, medical expenses, childcare, clothing, laundry, hygiene, phone, etc., for a family of three or four. Most of that amount would go for food alone. If a client nets $1500. and pays rent of $800. with $200. to $300 for utilities, he or she has $400. to $500. left for all other expenses. There is little left over to save any amount of money and little chance of getting out of this cycle of poverty.

I don’t see much difference between today’s working poor and the 1st C. C.E. peasants. I know that each of the employers that reduce hours to avoid paying benefits can fully justify their actions as the only affordable way to do business. They also can justify the choices they make to pay their executives huge salaries and bonuses, regardless of the profitability of the company. Over much of history a few of us have gotten rich on the backs of our low-paid workers. And apparently we feel fine about it.

I know, I know…you’re thinking: why write about this now? This system of keeping the majority of people enslaved in an economic system has existed for millennia, maybe we can’t do anything about it anyway. For me Crossan’s book has definitely captured my attention, helped me see our economic system in a new perspective. I am reminded of how people helped each other, even strangers, during the Great Depression when so many couldn’t find work. Salaries for executives and wages for workers didn’t reflect the huge gap there is today. There was a sense that they were all in that predicament together. I know that my father was grateful to find a job after he graduated from college in 1929. He and other employed people held on to what they had and then helped others with the little they could spare.

I had lunch with a friend yesterday after church. She is concerned about a few of her friends: one’s home is to be foreclosed on anytime between now and 120 days from now; another is a real estate agent who enjoyed the boom times, but finds little income now. My friend helps her friends with what she has left over after her expenses. Her income is down, but she is still making it.  As a nation we’ve just come out of three decades of a national preoccupation with me, mine and ours, starting in the 1980’s with the building of the first McMansions and the scandalous Ivan Boesky. It’s time to return to the more traditional values of community and neighbors and family. We ARE all in this together: the “this” being the environment, the economy, the political system, even our shared psychology. This is the truth we live with it. Let us embrace that truth and act accordingly.

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