The Causes and Conditions of Economic Injustice
The first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths pointed to us the truth of suffering. Suffering needs to be recognized as such and faced head-on if we wish to truly alleviate it. Our efforts to deny it or indulge in sensory indulgences to distract ourselves from it will inevitably lead to more suffering.
In the Second Noble Truth, the Buddha dives deeper to untangle the cause of this state of dukkha, this unsatisfactoriness that is the mark of samsara. He points to two root causes for suffering: craving (tanja) and ignorance (avijja). These, in turn, are related to the three poisons: hatred, ignorance, and greed.
“Bringing this all back home” has been the theme of my exploration of the Four Noble Truths. In my first article, I shared some of the statistics and stories from my home state of New Mexico, where economic injustice is all-encompassing. In this state of such stunning natural beauty and rich cultural heritage, there is immense poverty.
On a day-to-day basis, people are doing without—doing with less access to healthcare, less access to food and nutrition. These are things that affect you in profound ways. There are communities in New Mexico that the school buses won’t go into—you can’t get emergency vehicles into—because the roads are in such terrible shape. They have to borrow a truck to go out to a source of water, and pay to stick somebody’s hose into a tank on the back of their truck—just to have water to bathe and to drink. We’re talking very basic amenities. We’re talking about a level of poverty, in the colonias, that we often see in third world nations. In New Mexico, 130,000 people live in colonias.
~Kim Posich, executive director of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty
New Mexico is remarkable for the huge gap in income between the rich and the poor. In fact, our state leads the nation in income inequality. The incomes of the top fifth of New Mexican households were nearly 10 times that of the bottom fifth. The average annual income for the bottom 20 percent in the state was $16,300, while the richest 5 percent earned $273,500 on average.
Just as the Buddha did, we can ask: How did things get this way? What are the root causes of economic injustice, and how do they relate to craving and ignorance?
As a culture, we have a tendency to focus on individualism and solo wellbeing rather than collective wellbeing. Individuals are often blamed for the challenging conditions of their lives rather than looking at the systems of which we are all part. Claiming that someone just needs to ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ is easier than looking at where our own unearned privilege has gotten us.
We so often ignore the most basic teaching of the Buddha, that interconnection is the truth of things as they are. We forget that when Shakyamuni Buddha had his own awakening, from the get-go he put it in this collective context: “I and all sentient beings on earth, together, attain enlightenment at the same time.”
Interconnection. via Sage Mahosadha
Economic injustice, as it manifests here in New Mexico, is a prime example of interdependence. As I noted in the first article in this series, I’ve found David Loy’s model of the three poisons – greed, hatred, and delusion – as sites of collective suffering particularly helpful when viewing an issue through a dharmic lens. As we look at the causes and impacts of poverty, we begin to see some of the ways that the three poisons manifest on a social level:
Nationwide, a disproportionate share of the poor are African-American and Latino. More than 25% of Blacks and Latinos live below the poverty line (about $11,000 per year for an individual, $23,000 for a family of four), compared with 12 percent of Asian-Americans and less than 10 percent of whites. According to the Pew Research Center, the median wealth of white households is 18 times that of Hispanic households and 20 times that of Black households.
Here in New Mexico, institutionalized racism is linked to conditions that make it impossible for low-income and working class folks to make ends meet, particularly those who are immigrants from Mexico. Governor Susana Martinez, supported by right-wing Republicans, is pushing hard to repeal a state law that allows undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses. Wage theft – when an employer withholds part of an employee’s salary or when an employee is not paid the full salary — is a significant problem in the state, with about 25% of documented immigrants and 30% of undocumented immigrants having experienced it.
Classism and Economic Privilege
While there is a strong Latino/a presence in our state government – including the governor – and other positions of leadership, there is also a great deal of privilege that is consolidated among those in power. And they have made laws that reinforce their economic privilege.
The statewide minimum wage is $7.50 an hour, with higher rates in Albuquerque and Santa Fe because of local organizing efforts. In 2013, a bill passed in the legislature would have raised the state minimum wage to $8.50 but was vetoed by Governor Martinez who claimed that the very modest increase “…would be unsustainable and kill New Mexico jobs.”
Corporate Control of Natural Resources
New Mexico is a resource-rich state and for many years those resources were stewarded by local people (and fortunately still are in a number of places). The acequia water system is an especially beautiful model of a cooperative and collective way to share a natural resource – I’ll share more about this in one of my next articles. Crops like garlic, chile peppers, blue corn, pinto and Anasazi beans, pecans, and pinion nuts are deeply woven into the fabric of life of the people here.
But corporate interests are making inroads into local farming and turning it from a livelihood into an industry. Waters of the Rio Grande have been dammed off and diverted to serve the interests of a few. Communities become impoverished when corporations take over resources that have been locally shared and turn them into a profit-making vehicle.
Other factors in New Mexico that contribute to economic injustice include huge subsidies for fossil fuel industries, the impact of uranium mining on tribal peoples, and the vast amount of money that the U.S. government invests in military operations and nuclear energy rather than human resources.
All of these factors link together to create a vicious cycle that reinforces poverty. Lack of funding for childhood education impacts the ability of kids to prepare for jobs (and life), which in turn impacts their physical and emotional health, which in turn leads to high dropout rates from school.
In January, I participated in “Witness for the People,” an action at the state capitol organized by Interfaith Worker Justice’s New Mexico chapter. One of the speakers, Rev. Brandon Johnson of the United Church of Christ reminded us that the state budget is actually a “moral document,” one that is tied to the realities of:
· A single mother dreaming of a living wage
· An immigrant seeking safety and security
· A child that yearns for a fair chance at education
When we are ready to confront the ignorance and craving that are at the core of economic injustice, we’ll have a fighting chance to alleviate suffering for that single mother, that immigrant, and that child.
Coming next: The Third Noble Truth – Freedom from suffering is possible.
top photo: “Forgotten Hands” by Hamed Parham, via flickr.
Maia Zenyu Duerr is an anthropologist, writer, and student of liberation.
She practices in the Soto Zen lineage of Suzuki Roshi, with Victoria Shosan Austin as her teacher and guide. In 2012, she received ordination as a lay Buddhist chaplain from Roshi Joan Halifax.
From 2004-2008, Maia worked at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship where she served as executive director and editor of Turning Wheel magazine. For the past six years, she has been the director of the Upaya Zen Center Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program. She also serves on the faculty of the Buddhist Education for Social Transformation project, based at the International Women’s Partnership for Peace and Justice center in northern Thailand.
About BPF’s The System Stinks
Buddhist social justice curriculum
To help promote collective liberation and subvert the highly individualistic bent of much mainstream dharma these days, Buddhist Peace Fellowship presents our second year of The System Stinks — a collection of Buddhist social justice media named for the favorite protest sign of one of our founders, Robert Aitken, Roshi.
This year, we’ve asked some of our favorite dharma teachers, practitioners, and activists to reflect on the Four Noble Truths — suffering; the causes of suffering; cessation of suffering; and a path to cessation — from a systemic, social justice perspective.
Other Buddhist groups from around the world have also used the Four Noble Truths as a lens for social movements: for good examples, the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, and the Sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka. In a U.S.-based context (not predominantly Buddhist), where mindfulness is increasingly separated from ethics, we are eager to uphold this social justice tradition.
If you like what you see, please comment and share to show the world another side of Buddhism!
We are deeply grateful to the teachers and practitioners who lend their voices to this cause. In alignment with our media justice values, all contributors to the 2014 series have been offered humble compensation for their work.