2.09.2015

Class Struggle

America’s new aristocracyWage gaps caused by our increasingly knowledge-based economy, the attendant bigger returns to higher education, and huge advances for educated women in the workforce have led to what people are calling "assortative mating."  Which is to say that rich, successful, and smart people are pairing off, passing their smart genes on to their kids, and using their riches to make sure those kids are similarly successful.  It's a cycle that further entrenches and separates what a recent Economist cover story called "America's new aristocracy," as Ivy League parents produce Ivy League children who marry other Ivy League children and make even more Ivy League caliber babies.

There are two groups of people who should be aghast at this hardening stratification: liberals and Christians.  I am not a liberal, although I sympathize with many of their perspectives.  I am a Christian, although I'm not a very good one.  So apologies if I don't get these viewpoints quite right.  But here goes.

For liberals, equality of opportunity is paramount.  It is anathema that a child's destiny is set in place by the DNA she receives from her parents and by the zip code she lives in.  Vigorous countermeasures must be proposed, and even if they are implemented it is discouraging to think they are powerless to stem this kind of class separation.

For Christians, there is to be no difference between rich and poor in God's eyes, and in fact the Bible is full of strong language about the danger of riches and the importance of helping the poor.  Dramatically, Jesus Himself is described as impoverishing Himself in order to win us: "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich" (2 Corinthians 8:9).

If you are a liberal and/or a Christian, the increasing class stratification of America should concern you dearly.  And, in fact, it is my liberal and Christian friends who are often most vocal about policies and programs that seek greater equity of opportunity and resources across income levels.  Liberals rail at the rich getting richer, and advocate for interventions that stand up for the poor, promote redistribution, and advance society towards a fairer playing field.  Christians rail at how far short we fall from God's call to us to be generous with our wealth and mindful of the poor among us.

All well and good, and indeed quite noble and admirable.  However.  How many liberals and how many Christians are willing to do more than just advocate for those lower in socio-economic status, and to actually and truly become equals with them?  I don't mean finding solidarity with them at a demonstration or even devoting one's career to issues of social justice.  I mean real and true equality.  Like renouncing the social and societal safety nets available to higher class folks, and exposing yourself to the stress of knowing that one bad incident can result in financial disaster.  Or moving into a low-income neighborhood, which usually means more crime and worse air.  Or (gasp!) sending your kids to a school with other poor kids, thus subjecting them to overcrowded classrooms, underpaid teachers, and general chaos.  

It is a sign of the stark lines between classes in America that even if you consider yourself enlightened about and compassionate towards issues of socio-economic inequality, you're squirming at the very thought of the kinds of downward mobility I described above.  From the comfort of our lofty positions, we can espouse all sorts of progressive and righteous actions.  We can tolerate or even revel in temporary solidarity with the poor, whether marching with them or spending a day serving alongside them. But when faced with the mere possibility of having to rub shoulders in a meaningful way with those we claim to be for, that's a much more uncomfortable lift.

To connect back to this notion of "assortative mating," I would venture to guess that the thought of sending your kids to a school in a low-income neighborhood was the thorniest of the scenarios I listed above.  And, if we are honest with ourselves, what makes us squirm is not the short-term concerns of whether our children will be safe today, but the long-term concerns of whether our children will be competitive tomorrow.  Sure, we care that Junior doesn't get beat up at recess.  But we care more that Junior doesn't get left behind as other elites pair off and pass their smart genes onto the next generation. 

Maybe I am being too critical here, assuming that my own unenlightened views are shared by others.  You are likely kinder and less selfish than I am.  I am a child of immigrants, an Ivy League grad, and a cold-blooded capitalist, so I am greedier for my own advancement and comfort than most.  I probably shouldn't assume that others are nearly as provoked as I am at the thought of practicing true downward mobility.  

Wherever you are on these issues, and whether or not you are a Christian, you should be astounded by the description of Jesus I quoted above: "Though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich."  Christian logic often runs counter to the world's mores.  Followers of Jesus are to be like the One who renounced richness and became poor for the poor.  Believers in the Christian way are to understand that it is through poverty that one becomes rich.  

These are hard truths to understand, and even harder to live out.  They make me uncomfortable when I just think about them, let alone try to live them out in my life.  But I believe them to be the way to true life.  If this is easier for you to swallow and to implement, good for you.  If this grates against your sensibilities like it does mine, wrestle with me on these things and let's try together to get there.  For the worst thing of all is to not have it bother you one bit. 
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