Big differences

I recently was pleased to hear of a young doctor who I knew as a high school student. He is now completing a medical residency to become certified in internal medicine and plans to return to our community when that residency is completed. He has been in conversation with and interviewed at a local group practice. The person telling me the news about the young doctor said that he will start working with an annual income of about $700,000. I don’t know what benefits are included in the salary, but it is a fair bed that a physician working for a group practice has health care included among the benefits of the job. I have not researched that number and so know it only by hearsay. What another person earns really isn’t my business. But I think it is safe to assume that there are some physicians in our community, who have specialized skills, who earn close to that figure.

There are also people in our community who work at minimum wage jobs. Some of those workers work at multiple jobs because no single job will employ them full-time which would result in their earning benefits. Rather they work at multiple part-time jobs which means that salary is their only compensation. Their health care costs come out of pocket. A full-time minimum wage earner in South Dakota earns just under $18,000 per year.

The cost of housing in our area is variable, but rents range from just over $600 per month to well over $1,200 peer month. The median home price in our town is $192,600, so it is safe to assume that home ownership is pretty much beyond the earnings of a minimum-wage worker in our town. If we assume 30% of wages for housing, the minimum wage earner only has about $500 per month for that expense. Since it takes at least $100 more per month, it follows that the minimum wage earner is spending more than 30% of income on housing.

Then there is the cost of health care. Average health insurance cost for families, without subsidies, is $1,021. If you use that number it means that rent plus health care exceeds the income of a minimum-wage earner before they even consider groceries. More realistically, a family can find close to two minimum wage earners to increase income and would qualify for subsidies that could reduce health care costs to around $400 per month with an average deductible of over $8,000. If they are lucky and remain healthy, there is a little left over for groceries and clothes.

The specifics off the income and expenses are not critical, except to say that there are many people in our community who are struggling to make ends meet. They might be hard workers and careful budgeters and still struggle to meet the bare essentials of living.

The challenge for us is to try to form a community with these wide differences in income. It is hard for us to speak meaningfully about the cost of health care when some people simply assume that health care will be paid as part of their employment and think of their wages as income above and beyond that benefit while others are spending a huge percentage of their income on the same expense.

Using the 30% rule, the $700,000 per year doctor would have nearly $20,000 per month for housing. That person probably isn’t going to end up being a next-door neighbor to the one who can only afford $500 per month. The result is that not all of the people in our community are speaking to one another on a regular basis. The surgeon in the operating room doesn’t really know the people who clean that room every day. The successful real-estate developers don’t really know the renters who live in the apartments they own.

It is hard for us to engage in community conversations when the ranges in our community are so wide. People of wealth can be very generous and genuinely care about other people. They make gifts to organizations that feed hungry people and volunteer their time to helping agencies, but they don’t know first-hand what it means to have to choose between buying medicine and groceries. They have never personally had to make a decision which bills will go unpaid. They can’t connect with a family that has fallen behind in their utility payments and can’t find the money to have the power turned back on.

But this is who we are. We are a community that has both wealth and poverty. It is made up of people who don’t worry about money and people who think of little else. We are a diverse and varied community. Sometimes our emotions create barriers. A minimum wage earner can look at the home of a person who makes more than a half million dollars a year with jealousy. There can be envy over new cars and other expensive items. Someone who has always enjoyed financial privilege can convince themselves that they have earned their wealth. After all they have worked hard to achieve their position. What they don’t realize is that it takes more than hard work to get ahead in our society. There are people who have worked just as hard as they who struggle to put food on the table. Those emotional barriers also work against the formation of true community.

The church is called to be a center of community. We have the capacity of being a place where rich and poor meet face to face on equal footing and can form relationships that reach beyond the barriers of class and wealth. Unfortunately, we seldom succeed in that goal. Churches, like other social institutions, tend to be gatherings of people who hav much in common. Our congregation is pretty good at mixing people of vastly different economic levels. It is one of our strengths. Being the way we are requires a lot of work. But that is our calling.

When we say, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here!” we really mean it. Now it is our challenge to not just say the words, but also to live the meaning behind them.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!