Building the Good LIfe for All (L. Shannon Jung) - A Review

BUILDING THE GOOD LIFE FOR ALL: Transforming Income Inequality in our Communities. By L. Shannon Jung. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017. Vi + 125 pages.

The rich keep getting richer, the poor poorer, and the middle class is getting squeezed downward. The gap between the salaries of CEOs and the wages of workers is difficult to comprehend. Much has been said of late about income inequality and the growing gap between rich and poor in the United States. Politicians argue that tax cuts are needed for the “job creators” so they will be willing to invest in jobs in the United States, but there is little evidence that “trickledown economics” works as advertised. At the same time investment in infrastructure and education dwindles. Thus, the gap continues to grow wider every day, and we’re left to wonder if anything can be done to rectify the situation. More specifically, is there something that the church can do?

One who has some ideas that could bear fruit within the church is L. Shannon Jung, Professor Emeritus of Town and Country Ministry at Kansas City's St. Paul School of Theology. His focus is on the working poor, people who live paycheck to paycheck, and have little hope that the future is bright. Some are African American and Hispanic, but many are white men and women. This group of lower income people might not be officially listed as living in poverty, but its numbers are twice that of those officially defined as poor. He writes that “increasingly the middle class is becoming the working poor, and the economic plight of millions of Americans has become a major national concern” (p. 2). Jung refers to this group of people as Alec and Alice—with Alice signifying "Asset-Limited-Income-constrained, Employed." The implication of the book is that there are a lot of people working hard, but can’t seem to move beyond living amid economic uncertainty. The so-called American dream is further and further out of reach. People are angry. They’re “frustrated, overwhelmed, immobilized,” and politically, they are “encouraged to look after their own self-interest” (p. 3).

In this book, Jung invites church people to enter a needed conversation about our realities. This is a book designed to be discussed and implemented, with a set of discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Jung has three goals in mind as he wrote the book. The first goal is to "show that we are all interdependent." The second goal is to "demonstrate that the growing income gap impacts our spirituality as well." He writes that "how we respond to our situations is integrally tied into our spirituality, which includes both how we respond to others and also our own character." Finally, he introduces "four strategies for addressing income instability in your own context." (p. 4). These four strategies, which he describes with clarity are relief, self-help, cultural formation, and governmental action. Success depends on engaging all four strategies, which means not falling prey to the tendency to emphasize one to the exclusion of the others. It’s the synergy between the strategies that will enable people to flourish.

So, who are these working poor that Jung wants us to attend to? You may be surprised to learn who is included in this grouping, who are facing the prospect of living on a survival budget. It is also important to know that our society is dependent upon those who fall into the category of ALICE/ALEC. They include secretaries, waiters in restaurants, public school teachers, the people who cook our food, serve us in stories, fix our cars, clean offices and homes, as well as landscape homes and businesses, and more. Did you catch the reference to public school teachers? I didn’t expect to find them in the list, but there they are. These are people we depend upon for society to flourish, and yet many of people we depend upon are living paycheck to paycheck, with no room for error. Indeed, some are homeless, though they’re not your "typical homeless." They go to work or school, but they can't afford rent. 

Before Jung lays out his four strategies, he invites us to consider what a spirituality of flourishing might look like. This is a bit like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If we’re going to flourish, we will need a "basic level of material security." He reminds us that Americans, by and large, want to work. In fact, they want to be meaningfully employed so they can contribute to the good of society. To get there, however, requires having the basic necessities of life, such as food, housing, education. It also requires have a sense of being valued as a human being. There is a need to experience respect and affirmation. A spirituality of flourishing then will include experiencing a supportive community, as well as experiencing generosity and gratitude. A spirituality of flourishing recognizes our interdependence and includes reciprocity. As Jung notes, "the well-off must learn what it means to be generous without being patronizing or paternalistic. On the other hand, ALICE and ALEC must sense that they have something to offer to the flourishing of the well-off." (p. 32).

The four strategies move from the immediate to the long term. He starts with relief, what we might call charity. Churches have been deeply involved in charitable action. We understand that when disaster strikes, basic needs must be met. These are, however, stop-gap efforts, not long-term solutions. The problem with charity, according to Jung is it can create a sense of dependency, and thus it needs to be offered in a way to move toward interdependency. Jung offers some valuable information and insight about the pros and cons of short-term missions. He distinguishes between ones that prove helpful and those that do damage. While outside help is important, ultimately, local initiatives are required that enable people to empower themselves.

He speaks of the second strategy in terms of "self-help. This is a recognition that charity is not the norm. The goal of moving toward flourishing is empowering people to take control of their own lives. Here we move forward to long term solutions. There may be need of mixing relief and self-help, such as SNAP (food stamps) and housing support. Education is another contributor to self-help. Central to the success of self-help is allowing for self-determination. People need to be involved in decision making that affects their lives. 

The next phase of this process is cultural formation. This is a more difficult concept to implement, because it involves creating/pursuing cultural values that enable people to succeed in life. He notes that this isn't easy to describe, in part because there is not just one way of going about this. However, it is described and pursued, the focus is on “developing a culture that promotes the flourishing of all people,” and it “includes policies and initiatives by businesses, voluntary associations, or actions on behalf of certain classes of people” (p. 71). It involves creating community that includes but is not limited to the government, that undergirds efforts to move forward. One piece of this is forming neighborhoods that encourage and support movement. It can also include paying fair wages and encouraging businesses to see the benefit of keeping their employees happy.

The fourth strategy involves advocacy with the Government. Successful transformation will involve business, educational institutions, religious communities, NGO's, and yes government. Part of the strategy here is to organize to advocate for justice and fairness. We can engage in such efforts as lobbying for a living wage pushing for public health care. Having engaged in congregation-based community organizing, I know both how difficult this can be. I’ve also seen how important it is to show governmental bodies and leaders what justice looks like. To give but one example. A community organizing effort I was involved with was able to push the state housing authority to make better use of federal dollars designed to assist people facing foreclosure. The state was holding to money, because they didn’t know how to get out where it was needed. We were a small organization, but we helped the state fulfill its obligations. 

Each chapter in this book, as noted earlier, includes a set of discussion questions. The author also includes suggestions of organizations one might work with to move the needle on this effort. For churches and other faith communities, one must recognize that all four strategies are essential. We might not be able to engage in all four, but all are essential to success.

This is a very practical book. It is rooted in theory and theology. This is not a "bash the rich book. It's not a politically-laden book, that is, it doesn't presume that a particular economic or political system is the best. What it does is open up conversation that has the potential to move us forward toward the good life for all. My sense is that this will be a most useful book, one that churches and other organizations can take to heart as they seek to participate in the mission of God, bringing wholeness to a broken world. 


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