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Last Updated: 10 December 2013
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Seifert: Socializing Poverty

By Michael Seifert
FUERZA del Valle led rallies in support of a living wage in Brownsville and McAllen on Dec. 5.

BROWNSVILLE, December 10 - Two weeks ago, Pope Francis published Evangelii Guadium, annoying more than one supporter of the status quo.

In that letter, the Pope noted, pointedly, that “today we have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?... Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless.”

The pope’s comments left the normally humorless Forbes magazine resorting to cuteness. They published a commentary calling the apostolic exhortation “papal bull,” complaining that the pope was lending prestige to “leftist/socialist whining.”

A week later the whining stepped up a bit, as across the nation, fast-food workers walked off the job and supporters joined protests to demand that those who serve up America’s hamburgers and pancakes earn at least $15 an hour—pay that is considered by many to be a living wage, one that would allow the worker to support her family.

FUERZA del Valle led the protests in our region. Fast-food workers were invited to join the protest, and were, quite frankly, astonished at the idea of receiving a living wage. Local reporters pushed back at the idea, an inconceivable notion that restaurant workers should actually make enough money to get by on. In a region in which many, many hourly workers are not even paid minimum wage, $15 an hour would be unthinkable.

Hector Guzman, FUERZA’s irrepressible spokesperson, flipped the conversation when he noted to a reporter that what McDonalds and Burger King and Wendy’s were up to should be called the “socialization of poverty.”

“Those low wages bring huge profits to these corporations, but those profits also come at a cost to the rest of us. Taxpayers are the ones who have to cover the workers’ health care problems because they can’t afford insurance. More than half of all fast food workers depend on public assistance to get by,” he noted, “And that means that tax payers are subsidizing those wages. This is a redistribution of misery—only it doesn’t touch the company. Just the community.”

Alejandro manned the megaphone at the Brownsville protest. He had worked for Denny’s for five years. He described it as grueling, non-stop work.

“I remember one Christmas season when I was the only cook in the kitchen—the only guy there handling the rush,” he said, thinking back on that time. “For five years I worked there—and I only got a 35 cent raise, after all that time.”

Alejandro, for all of his work, was only able to increase his pay from $5.15 to $5.40 an hour. He had had to hustle from one job to another, never catching up, never getting ahead, and having to redefine for himself, again and again, what it means to live from pay check to pay check.

I find it hard to characterize Alejandro’s complaints as “whining,” nor the demand for a $15.00 base pay outrageous. Inconceivable, perhaps, given our politics and our love, our fascination, indeed, our idolatry of money. And in the context of blind idolatry, the Pope’s words become prophetic, as they reveal that which the mighty would rather remain hidden.

$15.00 an hour—improbable, but not impossible.

Michael Seifert is a community activist who lives in Brownsville, Texas. The above column first appeared in Seifert's blog, http://alongsideaborder.blogspot.com/2013/12/socializing-poverty.html

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