Stealing From the Poor: Why Those Who Can, Should Pass on Their $1200 Check

We’re entering the fourth week of major COVID-19 concern in the US, and in many states, including Minnesota, stay at home orders have been implemented to manage the almost certain reality of an overrun healthcare system.

Bars and restaurants have been closed to sit-in dining since March 16 thin Minnesota, and the unemployment rate across the country has skyrocketed. There is no denying that this heath crisis has also become an absolute economic disaster for many.

To be clear, the devastating economic toll that is being borne by workers across the country is not exactly new. Millions of families experience something like a coronavirus crisis every year. If you don’t have paid sick time, a flu bug can be devastating. If you are unable to save even a little of your paycheck, there simply isn’t an option to stay home during an illness, or to be with your kid if they’ve become sick.

This week, the boiler at my house broke and I was struck by the reminder that the daily tragedies don’t stop because there’s a global pandemic. I’m thankful that for my wife and I this wasn’t an especially devastating concern. We were able to pay for it, or rather, we’ll be able to pay for it later. But for far too many, a broken boiler or furnace at this moment would be an economic death sentence.

Acknowledging the economic turmoil that COVID-19 has caused, Congress has passed a 2 trillion-dollar relief package aimed at a cross section of the country’s economic and healthcare machine. There is still far too much corporate welfare in this bill for my own taste, especially when we consider that it is corporate greed that has placed so many of our neighbors in the vulnerable economic situation they find themselves in today.

The most buzzworthy part of the CARES Act is the $1200 check that will be cut to individuals making less than $75K, or $2400 for married couples. These dollars are intended to be additional support for those who need to apply for unemployment benefits (also increased under the CARES Act) and to encourage folks to spend their dollars, supporting businesses and providing a boost to the economy.

$1200 is not a small amount of money for most of us, and I know that for many this check will ensure that folks can pay their mortgage on time, pay for prescriptions, or address accumulated debt. But I’m hoping that those of us who continue to have a paycheck, for whom this check will be appreciated but not vital, will consider how we might best serve our neighbors who are really struggling.

Now, if you are in dire straits, if you can’t afford to not keep this money, then this isn’t a call to you. But, if this check will largely be additional income, if you are able, consider passing it on to help those for whom $1200 will be the difference between life and death.

I woke up this morning thinking about John the Baptist’s mandate in the Gospel of Luke, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none,” and Dorothy Day’s reframe, “If you have two coats, you have stolen one from the poor”. For many these sayings have often felt like the aspirations of radical communitarians, or as spiritual ideals left to monastics and mystics. But for the Christian, this call to consider our own complicity in the poverty of our neighbor is a real one.

Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, the Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, wrote an article in Sojourner’s this week entitled, “Plagues Expose the Foundations of Injustice”, arguing that the scales are largely dropping from our eyes amid the COVID-19 pandemic. She says, “This is the truth of disasters in the Bible, including plagues: They tear down the flimsy, whitewashed walls of false narratives to expose the foundations of injustice”[1].

In real time we are waking up to the ugly reality that exists when we turn a blind eye to the economic stranglehold we enforce on millions of Americans every day. When healthcare is tied solely to employment and the good will of corporations, and otherwise priced out of reach for so many, then families and workers are left vulnerable to illness, loss of income, loss of housing, and worse.

When we refuse to pay a living wage to the workers who make this oh-so-great economic machine turn, then we sit on the precipice of an economic disaster every day. When kids have to rely on their schools to provide them two meals a day, then the need to close schools for the safety of students has the direct opposite effect.

There are 140 million poor and low-wealth people in this country, and for them every day is a balancing act between just getting by and not making it. It’s these folks who are going to be hit hardest by the pandemic and the resulting economic meltdown. So, for those of us who are able we must consider passing along the resources we have available to us, to ensure that our neighbor is able to work, to eat, to live.

For Christians, we must truly wrestle with what it means for us to have the ability to help our neighbors, and to refuse to do it. Now, we do this every day in big and small ways, but especially in a time of crisis, when the government is passing along resources that we otherwise wouldn’t have, can we in good conscience not do everything in our power to lift up and support our neighbors who need a little more help?

Can’t give the whole check? Consider a good old fashion tithe; pass along 10% of that check to organizations providing housing, food, or other support to low-income folks. Or better yet, give that money directly to your neighbor in need, trusting them to make the best decisions for their family. If you don’t know any neighbors in need, that’s another conversation for another time.

I hope that as many of us who are able will consider passing along the $1200 that the government is sending our way. And I am even more hopeful that long after the immediate crisis has ended, we’ll do everything in our power to transform the fabric of our economic system to ensure that the immense wealth of this country is shared equitably among her people.

Sit with the words of John the Baptist and Dorothy Day, and when that check arrives in the mail, ask yourself, “Have I stolen this from my neighbor?”. The answer might be yes. If we are going to build a just world, it will start with the compassion and the generosity of one neighbor to another, and the conviction that we all do better when we all do better. Let’s do our part and spread the wealth as we are able.

[1] https://sojo.net/articles/plagues-expose-foundations-injustice

Originally published at https://nicholastangen.com on March 27, 2020.

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Nicholas Tangen is a Lutheran, writer, & community organizer in Minneapolis, MN writing at the intersection of faith & social transformation. nicholastangen.com

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Nicholas Tangen

Nicholas Tangen

Nicholas Tangen is a Lutheran, writer, & community organizer in Minneapolis, MN writing at the intersection of faith & social transformation. nicholastangen.com

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