by Jeremy Tuman
It’s hard to think about social justice without thinking about social injustice: those aspects of our society that seem inherently unfair. Chief among these aspects in my mind is how a person can work a full-time job and remain living in a somewhat mysterious category called “below the poverty line.” I say this category is mysterious not because the realities of life in this category are too far removed from most of our daily lives, and not because most of us don’t see or know or interact with such people. Of course we do see them, and know them. They are among us everyday, and in fact they are us, in the sense that the working poor are a huge part of our New Orleans community. I say the “poverty line” is mysterious because it’s derived by statistics, averages, and mean numbers, and these numbers are “mean” in both senses. The “line” implies that those living above it are okay somehow, that their struggles to make rent, pay bills, pay for health care, pay for child care, provide education, and cover transportation are somehow greatly eased by the simple fact that they live above the poverty line, just outside the mysterious, or maybe mysteriously derived, category.
But any working person who has used a monthly paycheck to calculate a monthly budget, and then imagined trying to calculate the same budget with a paycheck half as much, even one third as much, has a strong understanding that the amounts of money we’re talking about are simply not enough. The expenses are too great, too numerous, and at times too unpredictable or unexpected. The poverty line for a family of four is $24,250. A number so low that the logistics and realities of supporting oneself while raising kids on it simply boggle the mind. That working people are forced to survive on less than this, in a society that prides itself on its wealth, is in itself an injustice. That working people earning twice that amount face almost the exact same difficulties, yet receive less attention and assistance because they live above the poverty line, is an even bigger injustice.
The ranks of the working poor are growing in this country, as inequality widens and the middle class is dissolved. More and more of our income is distributed upward, as the costs of health care, education, communication, and transportation rise. These areas are not luxury items or even optional purchases. They are areas of basic need for every American, yet they remain prohibitively expensive, even out of reach altogether for some, even as the economy improves and corporate profits rise. The only thing that remains cheap is food, well, certain foods at least, namely cheeseburgers and fries. But as our tax dollars are used to keep these foods cheap, thereby subsidizing the profits of the corporations that sell them, while at the same time our tax dollars pay for the health care and even the food of employees of these corporations, then cheap cheeseburgers start to seem like less of a bargain. Factor in health care costs associated with over reliance on these cheap foods (how could you not, at poverty line incomes?) then the value meal itself begins to look like an injustice.
It’s not hard to find injustices in our society. A school like Xavier, that has the promotion of a more just society built into its very mission, has plenty of work to do and huge challenge to accept. As our first-year students prepare to engage in their required service learning in the spring semester, they have a tremendous opportunity in front of them to effect social change, and to gain a deeper and lasting understanding of both the meaning of social justice and their role in it. Of course this opportunity is facilitated by the faculty, who take on this additional challenge of teaching Freshman Seminar, and designing and leading service learning projects, when the majority of their colleagues choose not to teach the course. These are the teachers at the front line of the intersection of the school, its mission, and its first-year students, a crucial intersection where lifelong purpose can be forged. And I commend them, and encourage them to consider the injustice at the heart of their service learning project, no matter what project they choose.