Perhaps you’ve seen this commercial. It shows a shelter for the poor and the homeless around Christmas. Men and women enter from the cold and wintry streets, gathering under bright lights and sharing good cheer, clearly benefiting from an outpouring of holiday charity, compassion, and fellowship.
The commercial then shifts, and the environment changes into a dreary, downtrodden affair. A new year has begun, and the shelter is left darker, less full, its former ambient light and laughter dimmed into somber tones. All the while, a man at a piano sings the song “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” The scene concludes with the adage: “The season of giving ends, but the need remains.”
As our economy begins to recharge, with more Americans gaining jobs, it is important at the beginning of this new year to reflect on the right balance of responsibility and charity, as well as on those who remain left behind, forgotten. Americans are the most generous people in the world, but we also deeply value responsibility, and we know that a fulfilled life requires rewarding work.
Unfortunately, unemployment and underemployment continue to hinder a faster economic recovery, causing anxiety and suffering for persons and their families.
According to a new survey from CareerBuilder, nearly eight out of ten Americans say they are living paycheck-to-paycheck. Improving economic indices should not obscure these harsh realities. To better help persons support themselves and one another, in the full dignity of work, our next phase of economic regeneration must find the proper balance between right-sized government, responsibility to one another, and reasonable expectations that everyone can contribute according to their means and capacity. Everyone has something to give.
As this recognition and economic regeneration kindles a new policy discussion, several guideposts should be kept in mind: ensuring enhanced opportunity and the erasure of entrepreneurial impediments, along with efforts to address and mend brokenness. When persons are unemployed or underemployed, they can enter a downward spiral in their lives.
At the same time, Washington alone cannot create a humane economy that works for the many. Americans living together in community form the cornerstone of a vibrant market.
A fuller answer to unemployment, underemployment, and a widespread lack of fundamental financial assets—along with the resulting loss of social capital—might be found in the idea that government and society should join in “national solidarity,” seeing work as a common endeavor. After all, economics, at its essence, is not just transactional—it is profoundly relational.
A rightful discussion of the profound meaning of work requires the right words. The over reliance on depersonalizing economic language is one reason Washington can seem so disconnected from real communities and real people.
At the end of the month, if a person cannot pay the gas or grocery bill, they are unlikely to care about GDP growth or arguments for the efficiency of globalized trade. In a similar way, recent news cycles track skyrocketing stock market valuations that exceed most expectations, but glowing green numbers and signals provide little reassurance to millions of American workers who are priced out of owning stocks.
Ultimately, a lack of work—as well as a lack of assurance in the security of government guardrails and earned benefits—can take a life-diminishing toll.
In the Middle East, the Jordan River flows into both the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. There is a difference between the two bodies of seas: one of them is devoid of life. Water flows in, but nothing flows out. It is dead. Abundant life requires both giving and receiving, both charity and responsibility.
An economy founded on these strengths, supported by a right-sized government and a hardworking people, will keep growing stronger—so no one has to say, “Don’t Forget about Me.”