Rich and Poor, Richer and Poorer

It is unfortunate that so many have taken Jesus’ words, “For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me (Mt 26:11 nrsv), as an explanation for why there are poor people, as a rationalization for their permanence, and as a justification for indifference and inattention to them. They’re here – always have been and always will be – and since there is little that can be done to change the unchangeable, we should just accept it and get on with our own lives. Or so the conventional thinking goes.

In the meantime, the factors that contribute to maintaining the state of poverty and the fall of many into it go unchallenged in this wealthy country by the rulers and ruled alike. But the flip-side of rationalizing poverty turns out to be a justification of wealth; the poor have only themselves to blame for their condition, just like the wealthy have only themselves to laud for their fortunes. So, just as the factors contributing to poverty go unchecked, so, too, the factors that contribute to wealth go unchecked.

Very few are asking about why it is that so many people are getting further and further behind economically while comparatively few are leaping ahead at seemingly mach speed. Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that many are unaware of what sociologists and economists refer to as “income inequality,” and for those that are aware of it, their estimation of it is considerably less than it actually is.

Needless to say, the pronounced inequality in wealth is also an inequality in socioeconomic status and power. As long as the “haves” can succeed not only in acquiring wealth but also in explaining and justifying it, the “have-nots” will continue their own struggle for subsistence and survival. For the most part, and certainly by comparison, the poor are unorganized and ill-equipped to effect change in their circumstances; they don’t have politicians and lobbyists looking out for their interests.

From an ethical perspective, religious and non-religious people, believers of good faith and non-believers of good conscience, ought to concern themselves with the issue of income inequality because it is an unjust and dehumanizing scourge on our social order. Many economists note that it is a very difficult issue to handle and public policy advocates cannot agree among themselves about the extent of the problem or the ways to ameliorate it. But when it is examined “by the numbers,” it is a problem that is growing, underlining not only expanding social and economic inequality, but also a rising tide of human suffering and polarization.

The numbers on this issue are heart-wrenching. For those who like statistics in graphs and charts, there is one excellent set gathered at Mother Jones, another at, and one at Working Group on Extreme Inequality.

In late 2010, this issue received modest attention in the news media when the Census Bureau released results from its periodic American Community Survey. Major media outlets that gave the report some attention noted that income inequality reached a new high in 2009. Using one of several different indices of measurement, the report notes that in 2009 the aggregate income received by the bottom fifth of all income earners was 3.4% of the total income. The top fifth of all income earners received fully half of all income, or 50.3%. The highest fifth had incomes of $100,000 or more, and the lowest fifth had incomes of $20,454 or less.

According to the Census Bureau, since 1967 when they began monitoring household income, four/fifths or 80% of U.S. households have seen a decline in their share of the national income. Over the past forty-plus years, the percentage of total income for the lowest fifth has declined from 4.0% to 3.4%; the second fifth has declined from 10.8% to 8.6%; the third fifth from 16.8% to 14.6%; and the fourth fifth from 24.2% to 23.2%.

Of special note, however, is the fact that the highest fifth alone saw an increase in their aggregate income; in 1967 they received 43.6% of all income, but in 2009 they received 50.3%, an increase of 15.3% in their share.

At the same time, the top 5% of income receivers saw their share rise from 17.2% percent to 21.7% percent of all incomes received in this country, an increase of 26.1%!

According to Emmanuel Saez, professor of economics at UC-Berkeley, the top 1% of income receivers in 2009 brought home $1.1 million. The top one-hundredth of one percent brought home $27.3 million.

Scholars of antiquity estimate that in the days of Jesus and Paul, when monarchs ruled and the masses were essentially impoverished and subsisting on very little, the distribution of surplus production and wealth was confined to a very tiny minority, principally the ruling monarch and the aristocracy who didn’t actually dirty their hands with labor. In his book, Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification (University of North Carolina Press, 1984), Gerhard Lenski, for example, estimates that the governing and ruling class constituted about 2% of a nation’s population, but they in turn owned and controlled 50-67% of the wealth, primarily in the form of land and government assets. (See also K. C. Hanson and Douglas E. Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus: Social Structures and Social Conflicts [Augsburg Fortress, 1998]).

On the other hand, the peasants who lived in towns and villages and provided the labor to work the land to provide the wealth for the ruling class constituted upwards of 70% of the population. These lived literally from hand-to-mouth in volatile economic circumstances and in a cultural context where one could not aspire to rise up in social mobility; rather, one could only hope not to fall further down into more destructive impoverishment.

This socioeconomic stratification evident in ancient and medieval agrarian societies is referred to by Lenski and others as “proprietary theory of the state,” a view in which “the state is a piece of property that its owners may use, within rather broad and ill-defined limits, for their personal advantages. Guided by this theory, agrarian rulers and governing classes saw nothing immoral in the use of what we (not they) would call ‘public office’ for private gain. To them, it was simply the legitimate use of what they commonly regarded as their ‘patrimony’” (Human Societies: A Macrolevel Introduction to Sociology [McGraw-Hill, 1970], p. 258).

Functionally, when one considers the “numbers” indicative of income inequality in the U.S., we have our own version of the proprietary state going on. When 73% of aggregate income is acquired by 40% of the population, that leaves precious little for the remaining citizens and residents to seek and secure the “American Dream” by any meaningful measure. And when wealth controls both the public media and the political process (including both campaigns and lobbying), there is little reason to expect justice to be done for those who, for lack of resources, cannot exercise significant socioeconomic and political power. Both our economic system and our system of government have favored the wealthy, especially since the end of Second World War. The more you have, the more you can get; the less you have, the more will be taken from you – this seems to be the way it’s going. One need look no further than the Ayn Rand-inspired budget proposal of Rep. Paul Ryan, or the proposed tax breaks to the wealthy at the expense of safety-net programs for the more vulnerable among us.

True, the gap between the wealthy and the poor diminished somewhat in the first half of the century now passed. But beginning in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, the expansion of this gap has taken a slow but steady trajectory to its current level.

As to why this is so, there is very little agreement. In a series of articles in 2010 in Slate, Timothy Noah unearthed numbers and reasons why the typical explanations for inequality in income don’t hold up under scrutiny. In particular, he examined race and gender, parenthood status, immigration, computerization and technology, government programs and tax policy, organized labor, international manufacturing and trade, the decline in education, and none of these—singly or all together—can be shown to be the cause of our income inequality because offsetting conditions, circumstances and histories can be found (e.g., loss of jobs to computerization can be offset by new jobs that make the computers, or immigration may have a negative impact on non-skilled and low-wage workers, but no effect at all on middle-income earners).

So what, then, is the cause of income inequality? The jury is still out on that. Economists do not agree and policy wonks are equally divided on corrective steps.

But many except the most hard-core conservative capitalists believe that the continuation – to say nothing of the expansion – of this inequality is having harmful and undesirable effects on our society. Anger and polarization are on the increase, posing a threat to any semblance of national unity. Quality of life is diminishing for many: financial pressures put stress on marriage and family, and planning for the future is difficult if one cannot be certain of the conditions one will face. We are becoming a nation of enclaves of the very wealthy and ghettos of the impoverished. We are losing the capacity to trust and collaborate with one another, and this cannot help but severely alter the social and moral fabric of our communities. In place of the common good, we find increases in physical and mental illness and instances of violence.

This inequality has a disproportionate effect across the range of communities, rural, suburban, urban and exurban. As the recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shown, there are significant health disparities that are differentially found across economic, racial/ethnic and social groups, thus underscoring the connection between low economic status and high morbidity and mortality rates.

And the poverty rate continues to climb. According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey for 2009, 14.3% of U.S. residents lived in poverty, and this represents an 8% increase over 2008. The rate of poverty in racial/ethnic communities stands at 9.4% for non-Hispanic Whites, 25.8% for Blacks, and 25.3% for Hispanics, all increased from 2008. Only Asians saw no increase in their rate, standing at 12.5%. Moreover, 20.7% of children live in poverty, as do 12.9% of those between the ages of 18 and 64. Those aged 65 and older are less likely to be in poverty since their rate fell from 9.7% to 8.9%.

A society that can find ways to explain, rationalize, and justify the inequality expressed in these numbers is a society that has abandoned even the pretense to equality, to say nothing of fairness and justice. Equality of opportunity is a fiction now. What is equal about opportunities to flourish when a CEO can make 343 times the wage of a typical American worker, or when a new college graduate can find nothing but low-skilled jobs and end up moving back home?

A religionist might well agree with the author of Proverbs 22:2, who wrote: “The rich and the poor have this in common: The Lord is the maker of them all.” But it is dissembling and disingenuous to claim that the One who made both rich and poor has determined or predestined the rich to be rich and the poor to be poor. There is simply too much criticism of the rich and too much advocacy for the poor in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures to believe that the Creator has decreed, or is indifferent to, the privilege of the wealthy and the plight of the impoverished.

Perhaps the respondents to a 2004 Zogby International poll have the right idea. Commissioned by the progressive Center for American Progress, Res Publica, and Pax Christi, Zogby found that, when asked to identify the moral issues that most affected their vote in the 2004 election, 33% of the voters chose “greed and materialism,” while 31% chose “poverty and economic justice.” When one of these two “moral issues” motivates the vote of one out of every three voters, we must reassess the social, political and economic impulses that brought us to the stage where only the tiniest minority can be seen to prosper while the greatest number stagnate.

There has to be a better, more equitable way, to secure the well-being of all, and I’m very certain that it does not involve taking from the poor to give to the rich.


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