April 18, 2001

Ithaca Religious Leaders Meet, Voice Support for Living Wage

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Six of Ithaca’s religious leaders joined keynote speaker Marvin Mich at Anabel Taylor Hall yesterday to express their support for a living wage and to address the question of how Cornellians can balance moral and economic imperatives.

A living wage is a minimum income required to meet a household’s basic needs, including healthcare, rent and childcare.

“We have to start with the words ‘working poor,'” said Mich, an official of the Rochester Catholic Diocese and co-chair of Rochester’s Labor-Religion Coalition. “How can working people be poor? We should work to make that phrase obsolete,” he added.

Discussing the work of Paul Herzog, author of Parables as Subversive Speech, Mich sketched a portrait of Jesus as a controversial social critic.

“Jesus was confronting an oppressive situation. It’s interesting that 40 years later the church turned [his teachings] around and made them less radical,” Mich said.

Rabbi Lisa Freitag from the Ithaca Reform Congregation of Tikkun v’Or focused on the spiritual dignity of work as expressed in the Torah.

“The Human condition on earth is to work,” said Freitag. “The environment you create for workers also affects them from an emotional and spiritual perspective.”

After reading a selection from the Talmudic, Freitag added, “We must cultivate a sense of blessing and gratitude for the products we use and the people who produce them. Not seeing the people who make what we wear … or eat, blocks channels for that appreciation.”

Omar Afzal, advisor to the Cornell Muslim Educational & Cultural Association (MECA) encouraged the Cornell community to keep in mind that “everything on Earth belongs to God, we are only trustees who spend His trust.”

Presbyterian Reverend Bill Gibson, retired director of the EcoJustice Project in Ithaca, challenged the capitalist system’s capacity to sustain economic justice. Capitalism, said Gibson, by its very nature must expand and subordinate human relations to profits.

“If the driving force of capitalism could speak, its motto would be, ‘enough does not suffice,'” Gibson said, quoting author Ezra J. Mishan.

“If indeed the system we have is fundamentally flawed, then we must do more than patch it up, but move toward something fundamentally better,” he added.

Unitarian Universalist Rev. Stan Sears contributed his observations of local purchasing habits. “Ithacans consume more Equal Exchange Coffee than anyone else around. If we are so willing to [spend a little more] on people in Brazil and Costa Rica, why are we reluctant to support people who work with our children or provide infrastructure for our universities?”

Jordan Erenrich ’02 questioned the relative effectiveness of the living wage in light of available economic alternatives such as the Income Tax Credit, which targets the families most in need by accounting for the number of children and the spouse’s income.

“A large percentage of living wage benefits go to families that are already above the poverty line, families where one spouse has a middle class income,” said Erenrich following the conference.

“Cornell’s tax base for the community is low since the school pays no property taxes,” said David Unger ’02 in response. “It’s unfair for the federal tax base to subsidize wages so Cornell doesn’t have to pay as much.”

The panel discussion was sponsored by the Center for Religion, Ethics and Social Policy (CRESP), The Cornell Living Wage Coalition, the local United Auto Workers and eight other campus and community organizations.

Archived article by Sana Krasikov