Many issues facing our city and nation come down to these questions: “What kind of place are we leaving our children, and will we do what it takes to make their future better?”
I graduated from college in 1973 and from graduate school in 1976. I have been in the labor force since that time (with a break for another degree). The jobs have been good ones. The America into which I was born was a financial, commercial and industrial powerhouse. The America I am currently leaving to our children is overly indebted and seriously de-industrialized, with fewer and fewer good jobs for our children.
What is a good job? A good job is a job in which a person can make a meaningful contribution to society and earn a living wage, with something left over to save for retirement. Increasingly, there is a shortage of good jobs for Americans. If some pundits are correct, this problem is going to get worse. Jim Clifton, in a new book titled “The Coming Jobs War,” gives a good secular analysis of our situation. If we in America do not address our increasing inability to generate good jobs, we face a bleak future.
Memphis’ official unemployment rate is around 9 percent. Unfortunately, this is the tip of the iceberg. Researchers estimate another 9 percent of Memphians are employed in part-time jobs but wanting full-time work. Official estimates for the underemployed (working in jobs below their skill/training) and discouraged workers (no longer looking for work) are hard to come by, but it is probably safe to say that at least 20 percent to 25 percent of our city’s workforce does not have a “good job.” What will our city be like if this situation does not improve or worsens?
As a pastor, I’ve visited other countries and seen the suffering that results from a shortage of jobs: poverty, violence, a loss of self-respect and a loss of hope. Some months ago, a group in our church took a look at the needs of Memphis. We concluded that a lack of good jobs is a major problem in our city. This lack of jobs is reflected in the level of poverty and unemployment in our city.
A lack of jobs is not just about money. People without good jobs experience a loss of self-respect and live in perpetual anxiety. They sometimes lose their family. They sometimes turn to alcohol and drugs. A lack of good jobs also means a weak tax base to support public goods — museums, arts, parks, public agencies and the like. A lack of good jobs impacts families, churches, neighborhoods, charities and the public sector. Everyone is harmed by a lack of good jobs.
Why would a pastor write about this problem? Aren’t jobs an economic problem, something businesses and government should address? Yes. But, a lack of good jobs is also a spiritual problem.
In the Christian tradition, we talk about “vocation,” a calling to a specific work, which is important to the life of every human being. Human beings were created in the image of God, and our work is a part of how we reflect the image of God. If we do not create an environment in which people can find good jobs, we deprive our children of the opportunity to use their unique God-given talents, gifts and abilities. We impoverish ourselves and our society.
There are a number of things Memphians can do to help change our job climate:
*Every leader in Memphis, in government, in business and in education, should focus on encouraging and developing more and better jobs in our city.
*Schools must focus on basic skills children need to compete in the global labor market — and on the practical skills businesses in Memphis require to compete globally.
*Churches, synagogues and other nonprofit organizations must focus on helping those who are least able to get and hold jobs by addressing the spiritual and socio-economic factors that inhibit job creation in Memphis. Our congregation has begun volunteering at a local elementary school, assisting with a Memphis Jobs for Life program, and partnering with other service groups. It isn’t a lot, but it is a beginning.
Memphis/Shelby County needs to come together across racial, geographical and other divides on the subjects of education and jobs. We need to come together to attract businesses and entrepreneurs to create more and better jobs for Memphians. We need to work together to improve the future of our city and our families. We don’t have unlimited time.
The world economy will pass us by if we don’t work hard on this vital issue.
Dr. Chris Scruggs is senior pastor of Advent Presbyterian Church.