Downward Mobility

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ“There is neither Jew nor Greek, 

there is neither slave nor free, 

there is no male and female, 

for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” 

(Gal 3:28)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

My first ministry involved organizing a summer program for students in my parent’s new church home in McLean, Virginia in the late 1970s. The high school students loved this idea and I continued to organize the summer program throughout graduate school. Over these years, I saw one cohort of students after another progress through school, graduate, and move away, a process that I described as downward mobility. As a doctoral candidate with good prospects, I was one of the few able to live and find work in affluent Northern Virginia.

The Downwardly Mobile

This downward mobility is actually a phenomena facing most young people today. Studies show that real income in the United States has been relatively flat for college graduates since about 1980. The average student has a couple years of college before dropping out and, like high school graduates, has suffered a decline in real income since 1980. Only students with postgraduate work—maybe 10-20 percent of the population—have seen an increase in real income since 1980, generally associated with their ability to take advantage of changes in information technology—the hamburger helper of today’s professionals.

This downward mobility has placed economic pressure on many people making it hard to purchase a home or have a family. The disappearance of pensions and healthcare are a related problem. In the midst of this economic pressure, American society has increasingly been stratified by economic class. Throw in gender, race, and ethnicity, and you have a highly combustible mixture because no one feels better off. The decline in life expectancy over the past three years, due in part to record suicides and drug overdoses, is testimony to the stress that people feel.

Being the Church

In the middle of a chaotic social situation and pressure on budgets, how does the church resist the temptation to serve only the wealthier economic classes rather than the entire community? This is not an idle question.

Churches, like the Roman Catholics, that operate on the parish model are better able to serve the entire community than those that differentiate themselves based on their theological heritage, like most Protestant churches. A parish is defined geographically that should ideally serve both rich and poor neighborhoods equally.

A theologically defined church can attract one or another social group, depending on particular concerns. A church promoting the prosperity Gospel, for example, is much more likely to attract the economically-disadvantaged while the work-ethic of traditional Calvinist denominations, like the Presbyterians, is more likely to appeal to professional groups.

Irrespective of structure or theology, we are called as Christians to minister to and evangelize the entire community. Just because a stressful economy has raised the stakes, does not mean that we can neglect the mission.

The Special Problem of Immigration

Massive immigration from Latin American countries, particularly in Central America, has exacerbated class distinctions in America. Hispanic immigrants often speak no English and lack documentation that allows them to work in the United States. Political deadlock has led a humanitarian crisis at the border and the development of a rigid underclass in virtually every American city.

What makes this crisis interesting is that policy changes in the United States helped promote this immigration. Illegal drug use in America has prompted the growth of narco-trafficking and the development of drug gangs in Central America that has made life difficult in these countries. Meanwhile, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) lowered the price of grain in Central America undermining the rural economy (where most of the immigrants used to work) after 1994.

Complicating matters, the lack of population growth has created an urgent need for workers in the United States in low wage industries, such as janitorial services, hospitality, construction, and agriculture.

Role for Churches

While immigration has met the need for workers and promoted economic growth, the Hispanic immigration has proceeded too quickly for immigrants to be legally and socially integrated into American society. Churches need to intervene to assist with both problems.

The biblical mandate to assist immigrants is obvious. In Exodus, we read:

“You shall not wrong a sojourner [immigrant] or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry.” (Exod 22:21-23)

From a practical perspective I remind people that about a third of the children in the United States under the age of twenty share an Hispanic background. Another third are minorities. Learning to serve these groups today while the kids are young is an important investment in the future of congregational ministry that we dare not neglect.

Downward Mobility

Also See:

Value Of Life

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