What Low-Wage Workers Understand About the True Meaning of Christmas
This time of the year, we see manger scenes decorating homes and churches. They remind us of the fact that the first century shepherds are the original witnesses of the Good News of Jesus Christ. The low-wage workers of their day, shepherds in first-century Palestine were either young boys from poor families or migrant workers—the same class of people who work for less than a living wage today in the food service and hospitality industries. The angels in the Christmas story do not entrust the message of “peace on earth, good will to all people” to the religious leaders, politicians, or influencers of the ancient world. The news is delivered to low-wage workers while they work in the fields. They walk off the job to become the first witnesses of the Messiah’s birth.
As we celebrate Christmas in 2021, low-wage workers are again walking off the job in an historic wildcat strike that many Americans have misunderstood as simply “supply chain issues” or a “slow economic recovery.” When COVID-19 shut down much of the world in 2020, the low-wage workers who stock shelves, deliver food, and clean our public spaces could not work from home. Many of them traveled by public transport to continue showing up on the streets. They were often the first people to become infected with an airborne disease, to contract it on their commutes or at work. The single most at risk from COVID-19 in the initial months of the pandemic were low- and middle-income Americans.
While millions of Americans stayed home to stay safe, we celebrated the “essential workers” who kept us fed and entertained with mail-order consumer products. For a moment, employers even paid some of them “hero pay” as hazard bonuses and paid leave when they got sick. While low-income Americans and the poor voted in unprecedented numbers in 2020’s election, they still haven’t seen their goals for affordable housing and living wages fulfilled by 2021. As the shepherds of the Christmas story, low wage workers yearn for justice. They are resigning from their jobs to embrace the idea of a better society, just like their predecessors.
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On Wednesday, December 13, thousands of low-wage workers joined with religious and moral leaders to call for the Senate to pass the Build Back better Act and voter rights protections. They also demanded that Congress adjourn in order to enjoy the holiday season. These demands are unlikely to be fulfilled. Low-wage workers know that the wealthiest 1% have had their share of America’s economy almost double over the last 50 years. Corporate lobbyists are trying to stop major investment in social infrastructure. The cost of essential needs such as housing, education, and health care has risen. One hundred forty million Americans live in poverty or are low-income in one of the most prosperous nations in history. The steady growth of America’s GDP has not, in fact, been “good news for all people.”
Low-wage workers and the poor understand Christmas’ basic message. Good news for everyone when justice from God is shown to the lowest members of society. Everyone rises when we start from the bottom. This ancient wisdom is now a practical insight according to economists. It is not a shortage of resources that we have, but it is a dearth of the will to reduce inequality. Every $1 that goes into low-wage workers’ pockets in today’s economy gets multiplied into $1.20. Research also suggests that every $1 spent on early childhood education has a greater benefit than $7. It is not a shortage of resources that we have, but it is the lack of will and determination to reduce inequality.
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The attack on state legislative voting rights across the country in this year’s election is an attempt to undermine the power and voice of low-wage workers. Because Democrats hold both the White House and Congress, it is impossible to make a modest investment in social infrastructure. If congressional districts are gerrymandered to favor Republicans, voter rolls are purged and voter-access measures are rolled back in 2022’s midterm elections, the change that poor and low-income people voted for will be canceled by politicians who do not represent the majority of the American people.
This is the moment when American democracy needs to be at its best. The message that Christmas was first preached by the shepherds is what we need. This is why the Poor People’s Campaign will continue to organize for voting rights and investment in the people. It’s why low-wage workers are willing to walk off their jobs en masse to insist on better wages. It is why we are planning a Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington for June 18, 2022, to create a platform for the nation to hear the voices that are so often left out of our political debates and economic analysis. As we celebrate Christmas, may we remember to listen to low-wage workers and heed the good news they are still proclaiming “for all people.”