Economic Justice 101

What It Is, Why It Matters, and How To Do It

I’ve worked on economic justice issues for American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) for over 20 years, but my flip answer to this question is to say that I haven’t really seen any yet. (I hope to recognize it when I do.) Still, I found a powerful working definition in the pages of Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations. Benjamin was a radical and somewhat mystical Jewish literary and social theorist who tragically committed suicide when he was unable to escape from Nazi-occupied Europe.

In an essay titled “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” he spoke of “a fight for the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist.” Benjamin believed that those refined and spiritual things were nevertheless important and that they “manifest themselves in this struggle as courage, humor, cunning, and fortitude,” all of which come in handy in this kind of work (especially humor and cunning, in my experience). He argued that such things “have retroactive force and will constantly call into question every victory, past and present, of the rulers.”

A simpler but equally powerful definition comes from labor history. According to legend, one of the immigrant women led the 1912 Lawrence, Massachusetts textile strike carried a sign that said, “We want bread, but we want roses too.” The struggle is not just for food, clothing, shelter, and decent working conditions, but for leisure, culture, and education as well.

Indeed, it is the struggle for all those things people need in order to thrive and reach their full potential. As James Agee put it:

I believe that every human being is potentially capable, within his “limits,” of fully “realizing” his potentialities; that this, his being cheated and choked of it, is infinitely the ghastliest, commonest, and most inclusive of all the crimes of which the human world can accuse itself.

Why does it matter?

If people know anything at all about Quakerism, they probably know that Quakers are opposed to war. It is one of my ongoing frustrations, however, that many people don’t seem to realize that economic factors are responsible for far more deaths in the United States and around the world than armed conflict. Joseph Conrad spoke of “the merry dance of death and trade”; Gandhi called poverty “the worst form of violence.”

In his thoughtful 1997 book Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, psychiatrist James Gilligan did the math and found that:

Every fifteen years, on the average, as many people die because of relative poverty as would be killed in a thermonuclear war that caused 232 million deaths; and every single year, two to three times as many people die from poverty throughout the world as were killed by the Nazi genocide of the Jews over a six-year period. This is, in effect, the equivalent of an ongoing, unending, in fact accelerating, thermonuclear war, or genocide, perpetrated on the weak and poor every year of every decade, throughout the world.

Structural violence is also the main cause of behavioral violence on a socially and epidemiologically significant scale (from homicide and suicide to war and genocide). The question as to which of the two forms of violence—structural or behavioral—is more important, dangerous, or lethal is moot, for they are inextricably related to each other as cause to effect.

Gilligan’s numbers, admittedly dated but still worth considering, suggested that 180 people die prematurely due to economic factors for every person killed in armed conflict. Even if deaths from armed conflict have been underestimated, the one largely outnumbers the other. UNICEF reports that a person dies of hunger every 3.6 seconds and that half of those who do are children under five. Bad water and sanitation cause another 4,000 deaths per day. Given the will, these deaths are easily preventable.

The death toll doesn’t just impact the developing world. In 2009, a Harvard study found that nearly 45,000 Americans die prematurely each year due to lack of health insurance, around ten times the number of American military personnel killed in the Iraq war since 2003.

There is a huge body of hard science that shows that mortality and morbidity rates are directly related to relative social status. British epidemiologist Michael Marmot, author of The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity, studied civil servants in England and found that those in higher positions of authority were healthier and lived longer than those below them—and that this was true at every level of the hierarchy.

Key factors seem to be autonomy, control over life and work, and the ability to fully participate in society, all of which tend to diminish as one descends the social ladder. For this reason, the World Health Organization has stated, “Social justice is a matter of life and death.”

I write all this not to diminish the evil of armed conflict and the damage it does, or to question the importance of the peace testimony. I only wish that that other, bigger kind of war got more attention.

Can anything be done about it?

In a word, yes. While there is a tendency today to view “the market” as some kind of all-knowing, all-powerful god whose ways are not to be questioned by mere mortals, the fact is that people make the economy, and people can change it. Economic factors are behind so much misery and death mainly because things are currently distributed badly. Decisions about distribution are made at different levels, and it’s possible to influence many of them. In fact, doing so can be surprisingly fun and easy at times.

Here’s my caveat, however: contrary to the utopians among us, I don’t believe it we can completely remake the human condition. Some efforts to do so have made things worse. But it is possible to make amazing, if incremental, progress in any number of specific areas. The key is to be pragmatic, attentive, and focused on areas where you can actually have an impact. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus once observed that “some things are in our control and others not.” You can get further than you may think by focusing on the former.

What does working for economic justice look like?

It can take any number of forms. At a personal level, it can be as simple as making conscious decisions about where and how to spend money, for example, by patronizing a farmers’ market or buying union-made products. It can involve supporting the local food movement, union and community organizing, legislative advocacy, or influencing corporate behavior. It can entail writing letters to the editor, sending emails, making phone calls, attending rallies, informing people about beneficial programs, standing in picket lines, taking part in media events, or conducting research.

It can be serious or silly. Beth Spence, a coworker of mine at AFSC, spent the better part of a year interviewing witnesses, going underground, and pouring through evidence to produce a report on the causes of the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster that killed 29 West Virginia coal miners. That’s about as serious as you can get. The work can also involve humorous actions, though, such as the hot dog sale to save Social Security, the Rally for the Really Rich to highlight irresponsible tax cuts for the wealthy, or the Bake Sale for Medicaid to make a point about state budget priorities—all of which made a serious point.

Variety isn’t just the spice of life; it’s a necessity to respond to a constantly changing environment. The only limits are those of the imagination.

How do you do it?

At a very general level, I think much of economic justice work can be divided into three main areas: helping people get the best deal possible from the current system, engaging in campaigns to improve conditions for low income and working people, and building capacity to do more both of these.

Helping people now can include anything to improve conditions of life that doesn’t require some change in law or policy. A colleague of mine in New Mexico works to promote sustainable agriculture and organic farming. A coworker in my state mentors girls and encourages them to pursue higher education, and also works with young people on a community garden. I’ve helped people fill out financial aid forms for higher education, taught GED classes, prepared workshops and publications on welfare rights, programs, and benefits for working people. Plenty of churches help with food and clothing. Lots of groups visit low income communities to repair housing, etc.

This kind of work isn’t very dramatic, but it helps pursue economic justice. The big changes some of us dream about may never come, but we can still do something useful in the meantime.

Campaigns are the fun part. Some campaigns are over pretty quickly, while others can drag on for months or years. I worked with a committee for more than 20 years, trying trying to counter the actions of one unpleasant coal company—which I’m pleased to say doesn’t exist anymore.

I tend to think of campaigns as being of three varieties: ones where you take new ground; ones where you defend the gains of the past; and when you can’t do either of these, ones where you make the actions of injustice as unpleasant as possible for the perpetrators.

An example of the first kind would be getting a government to do something it hasn’t done before. In West Virginia, we are trying to get the state to establish a Future Fund from taxes on natural resources; this would become a permanent source of wealth. Several years ago, we took part in a successful effort to get the state to raise its minimum wage higher than the federal level for the first time. In 2009–10, many people worked to pass legislation aimed at expanding healthcare coverage.

This kind isn’t easy. As Niccolo Machiavelli observed 500 years ago:

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.

The second variety of campaign is much more common in these sad times and involves trying to protect the gains of the past. A good example of this is the nationwide effort that was made to block President Bush’s plans to privatize Social Security. In my state, we are gearing up to oppose cuts to childcare for working families. A year or so back, we worked to restore the state’s traditional Medicaid program after it had been tampered with.

Finally, there are times when you may not be able to make somebody do something or stop them, but you can at least make some noise and add some friction to the machines of injustice. A recent example of this was the Occupy the Courts in January 2012, when people around the country protested the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, a landmark case which rolled back campaign finance reform and allowed unlimited spending by corporations and unions. The ruling confused money and speech, as well as corporations and people. Our protest included a comic skit wherein someone tried to teach “the court” the difference.

Building capacity for helping people within the current system and for waging campaigns involves building alliances, relationships, strategies, media savvy, and conducting or accessing relevant research. In my state, for example, we formed West Virginians United for Social and Economic Justice, an umbrella coalition that includes labor, religious, and community groups that work together whenever practical, and civilly disagree at other times. We’ve also established a think tank to examine state and federal budgets and policies, as well as a news service that can get the word out about important issues.

How does one get started?

This will vary according to interest, local issues, and current events. Many Friends, of course, rely on Friends Committee for National Legislation (FCNL) for national issues. Additionally,  AFSC has a National Office of Public Policy and Advocacy (, as well as several local programs with an economic justice focus.

I also recommend keeping an eye on the research of two national policy organizations: the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities ( and the Economic Policy Institute ( Both groups also have often overlapping networks of state affiliates working on local issues. These are the State Fiscal Analysis Initiative ( and the Economic Analysis and Research Network (

There’s no substitute, of course, for just getting out there and seeing who is doing what and how well they’re doing it. Find something you care about, do your homework, meet people, and begin an ongoing cycle of action and reflection. And don’t forget to win and have some fun.

Rick Wilson

Rick Wilson is a native West Virginian who has worked for the AFSC since 1989. He has taught sociology for Marshall University and WVU-Tech and is a contributing columnist for the Charleston Gazette.

3 thoughts on “Economic Justice 101

  1. You need to meet Sam Robinson of Lets Grow Hilo. She has mobilized so many…all in an effort to grow edible gardens all over town. She is tireless…

    Nothing corporate about her….eventually, she is going to tire out…but in the process, she has inspired so many…so many.

    The vitality of youth.

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