Since my last blog I have started most classes by asking students to share about a news story they have encountered along with their personal view on the issue at hand. Among the many stories that students have shared, a few had to do with economic inequality in Calgary, Canada, and around the world. For instance, the top 1% of Canadians earns $381,000 per year on average while the lowest 90% earns $28,000 per year on average. In Calgary, where I live, 3% of Calgarians are in Canada’s top 1% - more than any other city in the country. Globally we recently learned that the richest 85 individuals in the world earn the same as the poorest 3.5 billion in the world. What is one to make of this?
As a professor I am charged (in part) with passing on information to students, encouraging them to think carefully and critically about that information, and to potentially do something with that information. What is our responsibility to economic inequality? What is your responsibility? What is my responsibility?
Social problems are complex and no single response will solve inequality altogether. Economic inequality is impacted by decisions made by individuals, organizations, and entire nations. I want to briefly consider the concept of giving more away as one practical response to economic inequality, namely in the form of money. Everyone has different circumstances that inform their economic needs – for example, urban vs. rural, children vs. no children, or debt vs. no debt. What would it look like if individuals and families identified a comfortable economic base with which to live from based on their economic needs (not wants per se) and gave the rest away? A ‘comfortable economic base’ is a subjective concept of course, but I suspect that one would be hard pressed to legitimately defend a 10,000 square foot home in Canada to house two parents, their 1.7 children, and their dog and goldfish.
Ron Sider in his book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger encourages readers to consider a graduated tithe. That is, identify the financial base that is needed to comfortably sustain one’s self and their family and then as you earn more money, give more and more away. In theory if one were to give 10% away at the outset, over the course of their life they might move closer toward living off of 10% and giving 90% away (theories always have limitations in reality, but the concept holds). Money alone will not solve economic inequality and contrary to reductionist assertions that homelessness is exclusively about a lack of money, economic means are an important part of the puzzle.
Adopting this approach might involve a re-orientation to how we think about money – from what kind of dwelling we live in to the size of mortgage that we take on to the aggressiveness with which we pay down debt to how much we set aside for retirement. I am not suggesting that we should become foolish with our money; great wisdom and stewardship are needed in this regard. But at what cost – or more accurately, whose cost – are we aggressively paying down debt or setting more and more away for retirement or purchasing the latest iphone or pair of jeans or shoes or Starbucks coffee?
If you agree with this simple premise, begin to ask yourself where are the needs to which you can contribute financially? Agencies overseas, local agencies, families living near or below the poverty line, single parents, families with young children, university students, or neighbors are just a few examples. Some are already contributing in these areas and thus be encouraged to continue – I am so proud of the leadership that Ambrose University College students take, for example, or pastors in my local congregation. Others are thinking about how they can respond, and so I invite you to begin where you are at financially and allow this way of generous living to infuse the decisions that you make moving forward, however big or small in actual dollars.
Thoughts? Pushback? I’m always open for the conversation – email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet me @joelthiessen.