The Root, the Evil, the Money: America and the Great Recession

by: Kevin Murriel

On the issue of “The World of Work and Money,” I feel it necessary for the sake of this paper to make a few preliminary comments regarding my personal experience of this subject that will ultimately influence my composition of this analysis and to some degree, help one understand the basis of my arguments in the coming paragraphs. Firstly, regarding the issue of work, I want to suggest that this principle is one that is deeply embedded in my understanding of the rights and roles of human beings that begins theologically, but seems to have more resonance in the realm of economics. Theologically speaking, it is my understanding that humans have been given the right, responsibility, and ability to work since the beginning of time–referencing Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (specifically Adam).
We are told in Genesis 2:15 of Adam’s first duty when God placed him in the Garden. That was, to work it and to take care of it. In essence, when God created humankind, specifically the man, the first thing God did was give the man a job. Though not for economic purposes at that time, and even before the fall, the notion of God’s created being given the opportunity and responsibility to labor physically, has had significant influence of my understanding of work in that I view it as a God-given privilege that has now been overwhelmingly emphasized as a means to accumulate more economic power.
Secondly, regarding money, I want to suggest two things. (1) That money on its face value is morally neutral. Scripturally, we are told that “the love of money is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10) ” and in my experience, many individuals take this to mean that money itself is evil. This, in my opinion, is not the case. Money as a tangible object does not choose to work for good one day and work for evil the next. It is a morally neutral entity that makes no choice to do right or wrong. On the other hand, I assert that individual’ s make this object seemingly evil when we use it for such purposes or even in some instances, begin to idolize this particular article. In essence, it is when we make money our primary love, or more specifically, that which we base our power on and put our total trust in, do we find ourselves searching and desiring more when there is a surplus, and highly miserable when there is a deficit. (2) That privilege continues to affect our nations decision-making regarding our national economy that causes minority groups to suffer the most in our current financial climate.
The notion of privilege–that being the explicit benefits or advantages a person or group has over another–is an element that has rooted itself in American culture from the beginning of this nation and has been maintained even into our 21st century context. Growing up in the deep south in a small town in Mississippi, I experienced first-hand the implications and outcomes that being in a position of privilege–specifically speaking of European American privilege– can have on society and the overall ethos of a community and culture. Moreover, it is these individuals who live and speak from a position of privilege that in any given place, more than likely, hold positions of prominence and power that gives them the authority to make critical decisions that naturally benefit the group in which they identify while leaving those who compose the minority, in a place of inferiority and sometimes, even marginalization. Regarding the decision-making for our national economy, this principle, I contend, still holds true in that the most privileged in society are given the task of making decisions that have and will continue to benefit their constituency over and above minority groups¬–thus, causing minority groups to suffer the most in this recovering financial climate.
As I begin my analysis of this critical and important issue, I will seek to highlight what I believe are three issues important to the circumstances currently facing Americans regarding our economy. They are: understanding the condition of the American economy to date; noting the trends and responses of various economic, age, and ethnic groups; and addressing what I feel should be our response in the coming days regarding our economy theologically and socially. The data and observation that I will conduct will for the most part, be taken from the 2010 article on “How the Great Recession Has Changed Life in America” produced by the The Pew Center for Social and Demographic Trends.
Regarding the current condition of the American economy, The Pew Staff writes:

Of the 13 recessions that the American public has endured since the Great Depression of 1929-33, none has presented a more punishing combination of length, breadth and depth than this one. A new Pew Research survey finds that 30 months after it began, the Great Recession has led to a downsizing of Americans’ expectations about their retirements and their children’s future; a new frugality in their spending and borrowing habits; and a concern that it could take several years, at a minimum, for their house values and family finances to recover.

Though only a snapshot into the reality that is the frail condition of our economy, this brief statement highlights the sentiments that many Americans share–that is, the uncertainty of our current recession. As in any context, however, there are always different opinions regarding the condition of certain things. For some, this recession has been observed through the lens of poverty and discontent and has allowed for a heightened level of hopelessness that the economy is in such disarray that it will not recover for years to come. Further, with such hopelessness, there is a sense as noted above, that this will negatively affect the future of many children and will make it even more difficult for many to save in hopes of a future of retirement, home ownership, etc. On the other hand, there are a percentage of individuals who have not been affected in significant way financially, socially, spiritually, etc. as a result of the recession and perhaps are able to observe these times through a lens of privilege. Through such a lens, these individuals are able to live through these times without much concern for the successful future of their children, retirement funds, home ownership, etc; and though many have experienced hardships as a result our economic downturn, the majority of individuals who look through this lens of privilege in America, are its White citizens.
To this, Tocqueville, regarding the social state of Anglo-Americans and the laws of inheritance writes:
They are, it is true, civil laws, but they should head the list of all political institutions, for they have an unbelievable influence on the social state of peoples, and political laws are no more than the expression of that state. Moreover, their way of influencing society is both sure and uniform; in some sense they lay hands on each generation before it is born. By their means man is armed with almost supernatural power over the future of his fellows.

Realistically, one can attest that in America, many have benefitted from that which one has left to them as inheritance. This, I argue, is seen most clearly in the realm of privilege and entitlement as it relates to Whites in American society throughout history and to our current day. These inheritances have passed down economic, social, and in some cases religious power that works in such a way as to place many on the margins of society but works sufficiently to maintain the majority “status quo” which has proven true in the midst of this recession–to which I will explain in greater detail in subsequent paragraphs. Nonetheless, whether one views the current state of the American economy through the lens of poverty or privilege, much truth is in the record setting unemployment rates, housing foreclosures, healthcare costs, decline in educational funding etc, which presents a stressful crisis for all Americans.
In addition to understanding the condition of the American economy, I found it immensely interesting as to the responses that various economic, age, and racial groups– according The Pew Center’s statistics–gave regarding stress and/or hope in reference to the current and future state of the economy. One of these findings confirms my above assertion concerning the state of those privileged in society as opposed to minority groups during this recession. That is, “while nearly all Americans have been hurt in one way or another, some groups have suffered more than others. Blacks and Hispanics have borne a disproportionate share of both the job losses and the housing foreclosures.” Consequently, The Pew Center found that the responses of Blacks and Hispanics (ethnically speaking), and Democrats (politically speaking), were in many cases filled with optimism about the recovery of the economy in spite of the hardships they had faced and as many continue to face. They noted that,
Blacks and Hispanics are more upbeat than whites. The young are more optimistic than middle-aged and older Americans. And Democrats are more upbeat than Republicans, even though Democrats have lower incomes and less wealth and have suffered more recession-related job losses.
The analysis finds that blacks, Democrats and, on most questions, younger adults are more likely than whites, Republicans and older adults to hold positive views about the national economy and their personal finances, regardless of their income, education, gender or whether they have had difficulty paying their bills, making mortgage or rent payments; getting or paying for medical care; or have had to cut spending during the recession.

On first read, the above assertions by The Pew Center surprised me. How could individuals with less means financially and affected more by the economy be the most optimistic when things seem to be getting better slowly rather than swiftly? To this, I turn to a quote that I learned in my community as a young boy. That is, “when you don’t have much to begin with, you don’t miss much.” This was basically the idea that my family and many other Black families in our community had regarding financial prominence and societal privilege. Though my family had significant means financially when I was young and even now, they have always lived by the principles they were taught growing up that relied heavily on the love of family and fellowship within the body of Christ, rather than on material wealth or power within a culture. Therefore, when the economic crisis occurred, they did not stress nor did I see them lose hope. But rather, they continuously believed that times would get better eventually.
This, I believe, is the catalyst through which many minorities today have organized their thinking regarding the outcome of this economic crisis despite the hardships they face. As for many, because they did not attain much financial wealth when the economy was healthy, they do not share the burden that many individuals in the majority bare who in many cases, have achieved much financial wealth and if not wealth, societal prominence or power. In essence, though I do not speak for all minorities, I believe that an overwhelming majority of minorities are more optimistic than Whites because minorities have never held the majority of privilege in America and therefore, do not lose hope regarding what they have never had possession of.
Furthermore, I cannot mention the optimistic response of minorities to this economic crisis without mentioning the effect that the election of President Barack Obama has seemingly had on these individuals. The Pew Center found that with the election of America’s first Black president, his most enthusiastic supporters—especially blacks, Democrats and young adults—are in a more positive frame of mind than Obama’s detractors about many aspects of national life. Moreover, the same results indicated that Democrats were more “upbeat” about the economic recovery than Republicans under Obama’s leadership while the reverse is also true–that Republicans under the leadership of George W. Bush (for most of the time) were more upbeat than Democrats were regarding the economic condition and stability of America.
Conversely, whereas I believe all presidents have some degree of influence on a constituency of people, I view President Obama’s success in beginning the process of building America’s economy in spite of the scrutiny, criticism, discrimination, and resistance as paramount in light of the national crisis we face. Not to mention, he is a minority and though the president of the most powerful nation in world, still in many ways cannot speak or function from a position of privilege as many of his colleagues can. And as his early life identified with hardship and low economic status, it is from this position that allows him to indentify with most Americans during this recession–especially minorities and middle to lower class Americans who have suffered severely due to this financial crisis; and perhaps even giving this particular constituency of Americans hope that they too can overcome these economic difficulties as he also had to do.
In addition to the response of minorities in comparison to the majority, it is important to cite the data collected regarding how this economic crisis has affected the financial atmosphere within individual homes. The Pew Center writes:
About half of Americans (48%) say their household’s current financial situation is worse now than before the recession. About one-in-five (21%) say they are in better shape. The rest say there has been no change. Grouped by income, those at the lower end of the scale are most likely to say they are in worse shape. Grouped by age, those in late middle age (50 to 64) are the most likely to say they are in worse shape.

Further, regarding the 21% of Americans who feel as if they are in “good shape” in spite of the recession, The Pew Center notes:
Even in these bad times, some people have made out OK. As noted above, about two-in-ten (21%) adults say their household finances are in better shape now than before the recession began. Among all currently employed workers, 20% say they were promoted or found a better job during the recession. And about four-in-ten say they have gotten at least one raise during the past 30 months (a proportion that is likely much lower than it would have been if the economy had been more robust).

Surprisingly, a good number of Americans have seemed to do well in this economic crisis; however, the data collected by The Pew Center regarding who these individuals are is staggering in its implications. The statistics indicate that individuals’ perception of their class association has changed. Those who consider themselves to be middle-class Americans has dropped while the classification of those who consider themselves in the lower-middle to lower-class of American society has increased significantly. On the other hand, those who consider themselves apart of upper or upper-middle class America saw hardly any decline at all. Interestingly enough, it is many of these individuals who are in the upper classes of society that compose most wall street, insurance, and corporate America executives that control much of the “big business” in our society and have been given the extended benefits of tax cuts for the next two years–while many Americans are struggling to pay mortgages, insurance, and even put food on their family’s table. One could ask if this is morally feasible or even if it is economically constructive to allow the wealthiest percentage of people in a society to pay fewer taxes than those who in many cases are trying to figure out how to survive day to day in that same society. But, of course, my answer would only be speculation and there is clearly no way to concretely assess someone’s moral impetus–but economically speaking, we can only obtain this answer as time continues.
As a final component to this analysis of work and money, I want note what I feel are factors that are currently negatively influencing the economic atmosphere in America. First, as many people in our nation are still jobless, homeless, and without sufficient means of survival, lawmakers and politicians continue to perpetuate the same division that in many ways caused this economic crisis initially. Those on Capital Hill claim in their campaigns that they have the best interest of the American people as a whole in mind while many of their actions once elected, prove otherwise. Our financial system will not recover at a consistent and sufficient rate if those who have been given authority by the American people to make decisions regarding our economy fail to do so in a bipartisan and wise fashion. As long as debates continue that upholds one party’s political advantage over against the others, many people will continue to fall victim to increased unemployment rates, foreclosures, and insufficient healthcare while only the percentage of American’s unaffected, continue to benefit from this recession.
Additionally, if this study done by The Pew Center is an accurate representation of the state of the economy and especially the increasing number of once middle-class Americans who now consider themselves lower-middle to lower class Americans, if key decisions are not made regarding our economy soon, this number will continue to increase and eventually, these individuals (primarily minorities) could lose the hope of a recovery that many current hold. In effect, this would be devastating to the overall economic recovery because the majority of tax payers make up the middle to lower class of American society. However, if we continue to throw increasing tax rates at already economically-devastated classes of citizens, then the apparent message that America is sending to these individuals is that we only care about the top 21% who are not at all being affected by the recession. And one way of showing this is by granting tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans for another two years–which has been done.

Conclusively, if America is to be the “great” nation we promote and acclaim, then we cannot have as the driving force in our pursuit of happiness only the accumulation of material wealth and financial prosperity. It is not that America has never been a financially prosperous country or that we have not had the privilege of an economic surplus; rather, when we get to a place where we only seek to consume material wealth and obtain more power, do we actually begin to see where much of our focus lies. America having lots of money, then, is not the issue; but when money leads America to steal from its own citizens, function only from a position of privilege, and perpetuate injustice around the world all in the name of power, prominence, and prosperity, do we reap the negative implications of such a root–which I contend highlights evil and irresponsibility at its core.