“Reflect now, what innocent person perishes? Since when are the upright destroyed? As I see it, those who plow for mischief and sow trouble, reap the same.” Job 4:7-8
Eliphaz, one of Job’s “friends” shares this cheery observation as Job is sitting in pure misery after having his family, wealth and health taken from him in a series of catastrophes that would cause anyone to seriously question, why me!? I doubt Job found this very consoling. But, it was in line with the ancient world’s thinking: one reaps what one sows; God favors the just, and punishes the unjust. If one has misfortune, well it’s his own fault; an all-seeing, all-knowing God has determined just punishment for whatever transgression has been committed. All kinds of misfortunes could be explained away with this line of thought, from diseases, death, and poverty, you name it. Whatever bad thing was happening in your life, somehow you brought in upon yourself. We’ve come a long way since those ancient days to better explain why diseases and other misfortunes, like earthquakes, storms and other natural phenomena occur in our lives, although there are still puzzling times when we have to question, why bad things happen to good people?
Today there seems to be a renewed sense by some people, that one is the cause of one’s misfortune, especially when it comes to poverty. Get a job! McDonald’s is always looking for workers! I work for my money! I see this on social media. I see it in emails passed around by passionate patriots. I hear and read it in the news accounts of our state and federal governments as they try to find a balance between providing social services, and paying for all the government’s obligations. There are many people who think the poor, are poor because they just aren’t trying hard enough, or because they squander the resources allocated to them. We’re seeing that with the current debate about extending unemployment benefits to the long term unemployed and long term cuts to the food stamp program. One side sees the need to continue paying the benefits, while the other sees it as a discouragement to someone getting out there and getting a job, and getting on with their lives. I wanted to share my personal story about some friends trying to make it in this challenging American economy today.
During the recent Great Recession, I found it necessary like many Americans, to try to supplement my income. After months and months of searching, and applying, and interviewing, I accepted a part-time job in a call center for a non-profit charitable organization. Now, let me say, I knew what the job was going into it. I knew it was a low-level hourly wage job. Therefore, I knew there were extreme limitations monetarily and benefit-wise, but I needed some extra income. I also knew the organization did great work; it fit within my other-work schedule, and eventually I thought it might lead to a full time position, with that organization, with full benefits, a good salary, etc. So let me make clear, on the front end, I do not fault the organization for using this particular business model. They use it in a very limited segment of their overall operations. They were great to work with, in every respect, even in the limited scope of a part-time job. I really could not have asked for a better part-time opportunity. It did provide some additional income, and great work experience. And it did create some opportunity for people to get their foot in the door, so to speak, to move onto other full time positions. So, this is not a commentary or reflection on this particular part-time job, or any particular organization, but rather on some hard working people I came to know and respect, and the real challenge of making ends meet in our current economy no matter how hard one is trying.
The work environment at the center was clean and professional. “It was inside work, with no heavy lifting,” as Senator Bob Dole once said in reply to a reporter’s question: Why do you want to be Vice President? It was located on an entire floor in a professional office building; an orderly subdivision of cubicles, computers and phones. The training and management was first class. Our task was fundraising and donor engagement. Even with a well respected brand name, and call-lists of current and past donors, I can assure you that making 80, to 200+ unsolicited phone calls in a very structured 5, to 7 hour day can be mind numbingly exhausting! For me, being “on” for that amount of time, for that many contacts was an extreme challenge. These were essentially cold sales-calls. Think how excited you get when someone calls you out of the blue, maybe during dinner time, to discuss a charitable donation? If you can replay that conversation in your mind, and then multiply that thousands of times a week, except you are on the receiving end…
While I was at the center, I met some wonderful, hardworking, earnest, big hearted, struggling people. However, of my initial training class of 25 or so individuals, barely 5 of us made it the first 6 months. Some didn’t make it through the training class, and a few more dropped out within the first two weeks after we made it to the floor. Phone work like this isn’t for everybody, no matter how much you love the mission, no matter how hard you try to psych yourself up, no matter how much you try to do the job. There were many, many mornings when I wanted to just drive past the center and head back home. I consider myself to be personable -a semi-people person. I lasted 18 months, mainly because I was sticking around to try and make it to the next level, the big leagues of the organization. Sadly, this was not to be for me, but that is for another story. A few people did go on to full time jobs, good for them! We were all so happy to see that when it did happen, especially when they could stay with the organization. But the transition to full time work was never easy.
The hourly pay was about $250.00 to $350.00 per week after taxes, working 30-39 long hours. There were numbers to hit, after all. Don’t think of it as a boiler room environment. It never was that, but we were there to raise dollars for the charity. It couldn’t be all pleasant phone calls but no results, no dollars. Take just a moment if you will, and consider how far $1000.00 to $1400.00 goes in your monthly budget? That’s a modest mortgage payment for many people, so now that that’s done, how do you keep the lights on, food in the refrigerator, phones working, cable bill, etc.? Even by doubling that, if two were working there together, that’s pretty hard to maintain any kind of standard of living, or put away a rainy day fund, let alone a nest egg.
Before or after a long shift, almost everyone had other jobs; some waited tables at restaurants; some were real estate agents or financial planners; additionally some went to school to finish college degrees –some young-student-aged, some middle-aged; and some did a combination of all three of those, just to make ends meet and hopefully provide for a better future. And oh yeah …most everyone there was also trying extremely hard to find full time employment, in a dignified and financially sustainable position. Other than a few people who were retired, or had spouses working full-time –those that were perfectly happy with part-time work, I didn’t know of a single person who wasn’t also in pursuit of a full-time job, which can be equally exhausting. As anyone who has been downsized from middle to upper management can attest to, finding a good job these days is a full time job!
Yes, some of the people working there were on government assistance in some form or fashion. There were single mothers with kids to feed. There were folks with disabilities. People utilized assistance to further their education. But, if anyone there was scamming the system, abusing the assistance, coming to work in new luxury cars, wearing fine clothes and jewelry, I never saw it. I never heard of it.
I made some good friends while working there. We worked hard together, believing in the cause of the organization, and we got to know each other through many hours toiling in the cubicle trenches. They really became part of my family: my Monday through Friday, 50 weeks out of the year extended family. I went to their weddings; I shared their sorrows through deaths; we celebrated birthdays together; I learned about their children, and grandchildren. We shared hopes and dreams.
And so, why were they …why were we struggling to make it in the most successful economy the world has ever known? Maybe the opportunities to succeed weren’t there for them; maybe the opportunities aren’t the same for everyone? Maybe taking advantage of those opportunities wasn’t done at the right time, or maybe not at all. Maybe some were working on their second, third, or fourth chance at life? I firmly believe where we are at any point in our lives, is not determined solely by decisions made that morning, or that day, or week …or sometimes even months before. So maybe decisions made 5, 10 or 20 years earlier had put some people on their current difficult path. Are they responsible for their bad decisions along the way? Sure they are. But in this great nation, should they be stuck in that situation for the rest of their lives, even as they try so hard to make new starts? As a society, do we want them stuck in those situations?
And that is the point of telling this story: today there are lots of people, who are trying hard, who are working hard and they still can’t catch up. They are still falling behind. Perhaps they’re saddled with bad opportunities, or bad decisions made long ago, but now they are trying to make up for lost time. They are trying to make up ground and join in the prosperity that the founders of our country promised, in the pursuit of happiness. That was and is the genius of our American way of life, that everyone can have the opportunity, not the right or the entitlement, but the opportunity, to have access to a level playing field. After all, all men are created equal, is also part of that promise. Through hard work and dedication, anyone can be elected president of the country or president of a company or president of their own company! We were and are different than the systems that came before us, where the station in life you were born in, was pretty much the same station you died in. Our system was and is designed to bring new, fresh blood into the creative operating center year in and year out. It doesn’t get stale by having the same group or family monopolizing the system to death; at least it’s not supposed to.
And so, the next time you are tempted to think of the Cadillac driving-drug abusing, welfare-cheats, (I’m sure there are guilty ones out there somewhere, not just everywhere) stealing your hard earned tax dollars through government give-away programs; and that all those cheats are there because of their own laziness and/or bad behavior; that somehow they are the reason why they are where they are, so low on the economic ladder, try to consider some of my friends who are actually hardworking folks who just need a little help to catch up, to catch a break, to catch the American Dream. I’ve seen them up close and personal, and I can tell you they want to work to succeed, they are working to succeed; they don’t want to just have it handed to them. And I know when they do succeed, they’ll be more than happy to give back, and give someone else a hand. And who knows, God forbid, but maybe someday you’ll be glad for someone willing to give you a second chance yourself. You may recall the rest of the story of Job. It ultimately teaches us: that a man can have it all one day, and also lose it seemingly overnight; and even though his closest friends questioned his personal culpability, God let him know it was through no fault of his own. Let’s not be like Job’s friends, and pile on the poor and the unfortunate in our society. Let’s be more like God, who gives hope, and offers helps to get them back on their feet again.