Social Justice Poetry

Something Is Wrong | A Social Justice Poem by Donal Mahoney

“The job should pay what the job is worth. You know that,” Bill
told Fred. The two of them were at the same table in a nice restaurant awaiting delivery of prime rib after another hard day at the office. They were munching on appetizers and sipping a new imported beer.

Until recently, Fred had agreed with Bill. Capitalism is the only
system that will work in a functioning society. Throughout history
other systems had failed miserably.

“Employers have to make a profit,” Bill said. Fred agreed. Employers compete with each other for capable employees and they have to pay the going rate, sometimes more in certain areas of expertise if qualified people are scarce.

It was hard for Fred to talk with Bill about his other concerns from a different, politically incorrect angle. But his experience at home over the weekend, where a Vietnam vet had done some odd jobs for him, had him thinking about work in America.

The vet suffered from PTSD and had been unable to find or hold a job in industry, despite a degree in engineering and a willingness to work. Fred had hired the man to do odd jobs around the house when his own work at the office had become extra heavy. He was glad the man was able to help and he paid him well.

“Bill, I told you about this guy who does odd jobs for us around the house. An engineer with PTSD from Vietnam. Not able to hold a regular job because of his nerves. True, the work he does for me doesn’t require great skill but it does take time and energy. He probably put in more than 20 hours for me around the house this weekend. And his work was good—probably better than I would have done if I had had the time. My wife is happy and so am I. So the question is do I pay him what the job is worth. Or do I pay him what he is worth—as a human being. And how do I calculate that?”

“What do you mean, Fred, pay him what he’s worth as a human being? You’re not a charity. He’s worth what the job he does is worth,” said Bill, signaling the waitress for two more beers.

“Bill, I’m beginning to think there’s more to it than that. As you and I learned in civics class too long ago, all men are created equal, as cliché as that may sound. We aren’t equal based on what
we do, but by virtue of who we are as human beings.

“Skills vary drastically but what makes anyone as a human being worth more than anyone else? This guy should be able to make a living, despite his disability. Like us, he’s an engineer. Why shouldn’t he be able to earn what the pols call a living wage. You and I probably would have a hard time making it on a living wage. We’re living much better. Shouldn’t he be able to earn a living, a real living, maybe not in the same ballpark as us, but enough to sleep at night? Not because he’s a vet but because he’s a human being.”

Bill wasn’t buying the idea. He was still upset about being delayed
in traffic that morning by fast-food workers marching around downtown demanding $15.00 an hour to flip burgers.

“Fred, if you want to pay the man a living wage as a private citizen, that’s your right. But don’t expect private business to do that. Private business has to make a profit. How much are you willing to pay for a double cheeseburger? This prime rib tonight isn’t cheap and it would cost a heck of a lot more if bus boys were getting $15.00 an hour. Is there no place for entry-level jobs anymore?”

“I’m not talking entry level, Bill. I think people at our level in
the fast-food business should make a little less so people who make
the burgers can be paid well enough to live. I’m no socialist but
something isn’t right in our society now. Many people work 40 hours a week and still have to use food stamps.

“At the grocery store the other day, the woman at the register—she
had to be in her fifties—told me she’s on food stamps despite
working at the store for 20 years. She’s damn good at what she does. As a human being what makes her worth less than you and me?

“I just think people who work full time should be paid enough not to need food stamps. And that employers should be restricted somehow from hiring an army of part-time workers so they can avoid hiring people full-time.”

Perhaps it was a good thing their prime rib arrived at the table at
that moment because Bill was hurting for answers and Fred was tired of sounding like a socialist. He was far from being a socialist. He was just tired of seeing so many people underpaid and living week to week. Never mind the way the truly poor have to live, he told Bill over dessert later, as it was prepared with flame by a waiter at their table.

After the waiter had left, Fred said to Bill, “Should that waiter
have to depend on tips to make a decent living? You and I can afford to tip well but not everybody can, yet the waiter still has to pay his bills. I wouldn’t be surprised if at times he hasn’t had to rely on food stamps like the lady at the grocery store.

“Something’s wrong with how we deal with working people in America and we better fix it before the wrong people wreck the system instead of fixing it.”

Bill didn’t have much else to say about the matter. He still strongly believed a job should pay what a job is worth. And Fred, after holding forth for the evening, was even more convinced that the system isn’t working. He was convinced something is wrong with how people are paid, never mind how the truly poor are treated. If there are no jobs for them, government has to do a better job meeting their needs. Philanthropy is important but it can’t be relied on to carry to whole load.

Sitting there with the last of his coffee, Fred knew that he had
convinced himself, if not his friend Bill, that experts in economics had better find a way to repair our system. And elected officials and voters had better put those repairs into effect after arguing about them. Too much time had already been wasted. And the working poor and the truly poor no longer sounded like they’re willing to live on the scraps that fall from the tables of people like Fred and Bill.


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