Review: Building the Good Life for All: Transforming Income Inequality in Our Communities (WJK, 2017)

[1] There is much to be commended in L. Shannon Jung’s new book, Building the Good Life for All: Transforming Income Inequality in Our Communities. As both a pastor and a scholar, Jung brings years of thinking about the church’s role in addressing poverty and inequality. His experience in parish ministry and with concrete service organizations makes the book practical and especially beneficial for congregational use. The book’s seven short chapters could be easily adapted to, for example, a Lenten book read or short book study.

[2] Building the Good Life is Jung’s fourth book since 2004 that explores these issues in an accessible way. While his earlier books also invited critical reflection on responses to poverty and hunger, this most recent work gives particular focus to practical and actionable steps to addressing inequality. These two strengths of the book – namely, accessibility and focus on concrete responses – are also areas of weakness. Sometimes the problems are simplified and the evidence is anecdotal, which then leads to generalizations and inadequate solutions.

[3] The book opens with a short introductory chapter that explains Jung’s focus for the book. Jung begins with (and throughout the book periodically returns to) a United Way study of six states that identified nearly half of the population in those six states as ALICE (Asset-Limited, Income Constrained, Employed), or in other words, working poor. Jung takes this study as reflective of the entire United States but does not provide the source for this important extrapolation.1 The focus of the book, then, is on addressing inequality for those who are working but still struggling to make ends meet. Specifically, Jung has three stated goals: 1) demonstrate that all people are interdependent (Chapter 1); 2) show how income inequality affects spirituality (Chapter 2); and 3) provide four strategies for addressing income instability (Chapters 3-6).

[4] The first chapter addresses interdependency. The chapter opens with a description and examples of the diverse lives and experiences of people who are “working poor” and it works to create empathy. The chapter concludes with what Jung takes as axiomatic, namely, that “Our interdependence means that we cannot flourish without others likewise flourishing” (p. 16). The key example in the chapter is a study from the Children’s Defense Fund concluding that the 15 million children who live in poverty cost the United States about 500 billion dollars long term. The appeal to self-interest is welcome. That said, distilling interconnectivity in financial terms is ultimately too narrow. Interdependence is not simply about my wellbeing but also about how my actions and decisions contribute to inequity. More reflection in this short chapter would have been useful.

[5] Chapter 2 aims to describe a spirituality of flourishing. Related to interdependence and mutual flourishing, Jung begins the chapter by describing how the presence of inequality leads to fear and overconsumption, two spiritually deficient conditions. He goes on to describe four prerequisites for flourishing: basic material security, awareness of intrinsic value, justice or fairness, and shalom expressed in community. The last half of the chapter helpfully focuses on habits and practices that build healthy communities.

[6] Chapter 3 gives attention to effective aid/charity. Jung notes that charity alone is inadequate and that larger structural changes are needed. For Jung, the biggest problem with meeting immediate needs is the culture of dependency that it can create. While dependency and enabling behavior are certainly issues to avoid, it seems to me that that the bigger problem is that aid allows the conditions of the inequity to continue. Dependency is not inevitable and the language of the chapter sometimes reinforces negative assumptions about those who live in poverty. More attention to sustained development and our own contributions to inequity could have enriched the chapter. In addition, after acknowledging that organizations should be evaluated based on their effectiveness, it was a surprise to see the United Way and the American Red Cross lifted up as good organizations to support. For one, these organizations are notoriously wasteful in their appropriation of aid dollars. For another, since this is an explicitly Christian book, highlighting denominational responses to poverty would seem a natural fit. A number of these programs skillfully combine both aid and structural change, but they are relegated to a table, in which some of the most effective programs are surprisingly absent.

[7] In Chapter 4 Jung turns his attention to empowering people who experience inequality. Unfortunately, the rather prominent “self-help” language in this chapter seems to cut against this goal. At times the book seems to imply that poor people do not want to help themselves (again, the author’s fear of a culture of dependency looms large). It might have been more fitting to emphasize language of empowerment along with a recognition of the ways in which certain types of aid can inhibit the agency of those who experience poverty. While Jung does discuss empowerment, it does not occupy the primary focus that it deserves.

[8] While the third and fourth chapters focus on individual roles in inequality, Chapter 5 and Chapter 6 draw attention to important structural and systemic factors. Chapter 5 looks specifically at businesses, media, churches, community organizations, and other places of cultural formation. The chapter shares several stories of businesses and organizations that are working for change. That chapter widens the scope of the discussion and provides several suggestions for fairer business practices. Chapter 6 discusses the role of the government in creating and maintaining equality. Several good lobbying organizations are mentioned (including Bread for the World) but again denominational advocacy offices are omitted. The chapter helpfully lists various issues and programs to support in advocacy work but does not offer much by way of strategies for effective political engagement.

[9] The final short chapter provides a series of questions and charts that invite reflections on work being done in the reader’s local community. It functions as an abbreviated S.W.O.T. analysis with which congregations can evaluate the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats for engagement in these important issues.

[10] In sum, Building the Good Life encourages helpful reflection on how individuals and congregations can respond to inequality in their communities. In particular, the questions at the end of each of the chapters encourage good thinking. As I read the book I imagined many fruitful conversations the discussion questions would have prompted in the churches I have been involved in. The book is short and the framing of the issues (and therefore effective responses) does not always reflect the complexity of the problems. Thus, if a congregation is already deeply involved in the work they may find it too simplistic. In my experience, however, this book would serve as a useful starter for thinking about effectively addressing inequalities.

1 The generalization of the findings of the study may be fair but reference to data here as he makes his case for why the book matters would be helpful. On this, I would add a general observation about the book: since the book is not an academic piece, it is somewhat limited in citations and interaction with critical sources. This makes the book more accessible but at points perhaps not as rigorous as one would hope, even for a non-academic audience.

David Creech

David Creech is Assistant Professor of Religion at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN and former Director of Hunger Education for ELCA World Hunger.