food pantry

Jobs for All?

As unemployment in the U.S. continues to rise to historic levels due to COVID-19, what does history teach us about religion's role in helping get Americans back to work?

By Steven Tipton & Brooks Holifield|June 26, 2020

Since the pandemic took hold three months ago, one in eight Americans has lost their job. One in three workers counts as unemployed, two in five from low-wage households, and millions more are sidelined. Only half the adult population remains at work, the lowest percentage on record in American history. Congress now stands divided about extending public provision for the jobless, or “reopening” the economy with scant capacity to test, track, and isolate the virus to keep citizens safe. 
Since the police killing of George Floyd one month ago, more Americans than ever have come to acknowledge how deep and deadly racial injustice remains across the full range of our institutions, not only in law enforcement. It infects how we work and earn, pay wages and taxes. It divides the course of our lives as we finish school and find jobs, pursue careers and follow callings, or we lose our way and our dreams, with so little to show for our labor or to save for our future. At this moment restorative justice and social transformation beckon, while government gridlock and partisan polarization hang in the balance.
When the immediate crisis has passed, thousands of businesses that have closed their doors will remain unable to open them. Millions of Americans will remain jobless, suffer hardship, and face despair. As the economy struggles to rebound, diverging roads to recovery or relapse will bring more attention to the inequality and more anger at the unfairness this cataclysm has deepened between haves and have-nots, those sheltered and those exposed, along the lines of race and class, gender, and generation. Has the time come to take another path? Should we invest in jobs for all? 
The idea is not new to American history. With one in four workers left jobless during the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps put eleven million Americans to work building roads and schools, planting trees, and painting public murals. In 1944 Franklin Roosevelt declared an Economic Bill of Rights to carry the country from war to peace with justice. Having sacrificed during four years of war, all Americans should be “free to speak and pray as they wish—free from want—and free from fear.” No less than freedom of religion and speech, the right of everyone to work at a useful job and earn enough to feed, clothe, and shelter their family in a decent home, were to be marks of a fair and just America. Dwight Eisenhower recognized full employment as the key to postwar progress and prosperity, and Martin Luther King Jr. grasped the right to earn as no less essential for full citizenship than the right to vote. 
The idea is also not new to Christian social teachings. As economic inequality and free market fabulism overtook the Great Society, Catholic bishops called for “Economic Justice for All” in 1986. Loving our neighbor requires commitment to the common good, they urged, to enable everyone to take part in economic life and contribute to the commonweal. All people have a right to life, food, shelter, rest, medical care, education, and employment. All of us must, moreover, share these goods essential for flourishing, particularly with the neediest among us. There is plenty of good work to do, and there are plenty of Americans ready and willing to do it. They should have the right, guaranteed by federal and state govenments, to do their share and get their share.
As economic inequality and hardship have grown ever more visible, Protestant churches as well called for work as a moral good and a right for all. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America called in 1999 for public and private sector partnerships to “generate jobs for the livelihood of more people.” Most Presbyterian pastors in 2005 agreed that every person was entitled to a decent family life “sustained by a sufficient wage.” “Every person has a right to a job with a living wage,” added the United Methodists in 2016.
Church leaders from these and other denominations called for full employment and an end to poverty as expressions of the Gospel mandate to care for the hungry and homeless as God’s children. They appealed to the teachings of the Hebrew prophets who united in proclaiming “that people shall long enjoy the work of their hands” (Isaiah 62:51). They noted that Jesus’s parables portrayed the Kingdom of God by showing men and women at work, sowing in the fields, buying and selling, feeding families, raising sheep, and keeping vineyards. None of them confused the Kingdom with America, but they suggested that visions of the Kingdom at work and rest should inspire commitment to a just economic order.
They called, too, for America to be faithful to its promise of liberty and justice for all, left unfulfilled for millions of the least of these, without work at living wages. American citizenship has always been democratic in principle, as Judith Shklar observes, but in practice its radical ideals of freedom and equality have been contested and enacted in counterpoint to aristocratic rule and chattel slavery. Alongside the political right to vote, the social right of equal opportunity to work and earn a living proved no less central to full personhood and full citizenship, by contrast to the privileged idleness of aristocrats and the unpaid labor of enslaved persons. Voting and earning alike mark human dignity in America. Denied such social participation and inclusion, we discover ourselves dishonored and dismissed, not just powerless and poor.
American voters and earners now find themselves deeply divided and in danger of losing their lives and their livelihoods. Can faith move Christians to come together in the priesthood of all believers, and can civic virtue move citizens to protect lives in the present and provide for a fairer future? Can the creative ingenuity of the market and the responsible power of government at all levels enable everyone to earn a living at work in the private or public sector? Soon enough we must get out the vote and get back to work. All of us.


Image: People wait in line to get groceries at a pop-up food pantry for unemployed workers, many of whom lost their jobs due to COVID-19, in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on April 14, 2020. (Photo Credit: Erin Clark)

Sightings is edited by Joel Brown, a PhD Candidate in Religions in the Americas at the Divinity School. Sign up here to receive Sightings via email. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Marty Center or its editor.

Steven Tipton & Brooks Holifield

Author, Steven Tipton, is C.H. Candler Professor Emeritus of Sociology of Religion at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. Before teaching sociology and ethics at Emory and Candler, he investigated cases of police misconduct for a federally funded poverty law office in Harlem.

Author, Brooks Holifield, is Charles Howard Candler Professor Emeritus of American Church History at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He retired in 2011 from teaching modern Christian thought and history at Emory and Candler. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.