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RENJE: $600 cell phones, the dignity of a minimum wage job: Overcoming systematic & culture failures

Bill Renje

Bill Renje

Last week, I wrote about The Culture of Poverty, and I wanted to begin this column with a real life example of something I just witnessed that underscores both the cultural and systematic failures of American society.

A student I minister to told me he had to get a new cellphone because his was stolen. He paid, get this, $600 for it. That’s six hundred dollars — for a phone. He’ll be paying $50 a check from his fast food job — one-fourth of his income — for the next six months to pay for this phone.

It’s a cultural failure because this student, like many I work with, comes from an impoverished background, where few, if any, life lessons are being transmitted in the single-parent home. So specific to the above anecdote, there’s no concept of budgeting, teaching the art of negotiation, saving or delayed gratification, weighing a want versus a need and prioritizing those needs. There’s no shopping around to find the best deal or purchasing a much less costly replacement or understanding what a smart purchase is.

The “keeping up with the Joneses” mindset that’s infected all of our culture particularly has a harsh impact on those without the wherewithal or purchase power to fund a lifestyle where a $600 phone becomes a priority. And maybe I’m just old school, but I don’t think anybody, regardless of income level and certainly not a teenager who lacks transportation to get to work, needs a phone that expensive.

But in an entertainment-saturated culture in the music, movies and on TV where swag and bling is essential to identity, it’s hard to fault the kids when the adults around them are either AWOL or propagating this superficial lifestyle themselves.

It’s a systematic failure because, to be blunt, it should be illegal for a 16-year-old to walk into a cellphone store, or any store, and walk out with a fully financed $600 item. But it won’t ever be illegal because the corporate fat cats and the financial institutions get rich off of those purchases.

Those who have the gold make the rules, or at least control the lobbyists who control those who make the rules.

Easy credit was supposed to tighten after the financial collapse of the previous decade. But two trillion-dollar taxpayer bailouts that went directly into the accounts of the financial institutions largely responsible for the crisis just made it that much easier to fuel the addiction of purchasing power brought about by easy credit.

And when teenagers have early access to credit, — in particular, poorer teenagers — it can begin the endless, lifelong cycle of debt, dependency and despair.

As adults, we need to be very mindful of raising up the next generation of responsible adults, not just our own children but those around us as well. The latter can be accomplished through wrapping our arms around the most vulnerable in our school systems through mentoring and adopt-a-school programs from civic as well as faith-based ministries, funded by public and private partnerships.

One such example is Tony Evans’ ‘National Church Adopt-a-School Initiative’ which implements its program where “in a nation that has established divisions between the sacred and the secular must be done in such a way that respects the institutional separation of church and state while also reflecting God’s kingdom values through acts of service.”

In Dallas, TX, Dr. Evans’ 9,500 member Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship is engaged in 65 public schools through programs like mentoring and tutoring in the Dallas-Ft. Worth Area. It’s an initiative that’s now gone national. Other ministries, like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes is actively engaged in campus ministry. Locally here in Atlanta, we’ve seen tremendous growth of many young men and women that we’ve worked with.

As I opened with an anecdote, so too will I close with an anecdote illustrating the importance of mentorship in instilling the value — and the dignity that comes with it — of work in the development of young people.

Another young man I’ve had the pleasure of working with, also from a poverty-stricken background, recently got his first job at McDonald’s. It’s a job that many of his peers would scoff at because it’s a minimum wage job flipping burgers. But it’s taught this young man the value of work, and the self-respect that comes along with it. He’s expressed to me that he feels better about himself, more responsible, more energetic and that it’s made him a better student. And as he progresses, he’ll develop a resume, further his education through scholarships offered by McDonald’s and be able to move past the realm of a minimum wage job where most of us started.

Bill is on staff with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and a Deacon at Eagles Landing FBC in McDonough, Ga. He lives in Locust Grove with his wife Amy and their three children. You can learn more about him at his website www.achosenbullet.com.