Disparity and despair

The current income disparity in the U.S. is enough to make most anyone despair — at least those outside the top ten percent. The rich have made out like bandits during the recovery from our most recent greed-induced “great recession,” while poor and middle class workers have barely seen any increase in their income.

Image from the New York TimesA recent study cited by the New York Times shows that in 2012, half of all the income generated in America went to the top 10 percent, with more than a fifth of the total income (22.5 percent) going to the top one percent.

On average, the top one percent saw their income drop 36 percent as the recession unfolded, but have regained 31 percent of it. The rest of us saw income go down 12 percent, but have regained just 0.4 percent.

For the year 2012, according to the report, income for 99 percent of Americans increased by one percent, while income for the top one percent increased by more than 20 percent.

It’s a little dated now, and its sources aren’t documented, but this video does an effective job of showing how disproportionately wealth is distributed among U.S. families. It portrays a sad picture of how the very rich have accumulated massive amounts of wealth, while the poorest people struggle to survive and can’t get ahead. 

Many large employers, including a number of big box stores and fast food chains, contribute to the problem by maximizing corporate profits at the expense of their employees by hiring lots of people but only allowing them to work part time for low hourly wages and providing zero benefits.

“Tax reform” that favors the wealthy has contributed greatly to this disparity, and it continues apace. This past year, for example, N.C. legislators lowered the state income tax (the more income, the more benefit) while instituting sales taxes on a broad array of goods and services, adding a disproportionately greater burden on poor and middle income citizens.

Anyone should be able to see that this is trouble in the making. While it’s unlikely that we will see a full-scale revolution leading to a call for socialism or something equally radical, public unrest is bound to grow. A new civil rights movement is likely to blossom, calling for economic justice.

It’s hard, in some ways, to blame the rich for piling up more wealth at the expense of the poor. They do it because they can.

Ideally, those who make immoral millions on the backs of the poor would have the decency and compassion to share some portion of the wealth voluntarily — they could offer higher wages and better benefits to hard-working employees and still be filthy rich.

Expecting people to operate on the basis of altruism rather than greed sounds good, but has been little more than a dream as far back as we have records.

Social inequity and exploitation of the poor was a primary concern of prophets like Isaiah, Micah, and Amos. Jesus had far more to say about economic issues than any other moral ills, and it should continue to be a concern for those who claim to follow Jesus.

It may seem that there’s little we can do, but each of us can do something. We can pray, for one thing, but then put feet to our prayers. We can give generous tips to underpaid workers (not ideal, but something), or refuse to patronize the most egregious offenders. We can vote for politicians who really care about all of their constituents, and not just the rich ones. We can lift our voices in calling for corporations to treat their employees better, expressing a willingness to pay more, if necessary, so that employees here and abroad can work in a safe environment and be paid a living wage.

This may seem to be an intractable problem, but we can’t just ignore it and give up. There’s no “compassion bomb” to drop or “altruism epidemic” to incite — but if we paid more attention to Jesus’ teachings, it would be a good start.

2 Comments

  1. There is more said in the Bible about economic sin than most of what gets preached in most churches these days. The Second Great Commandment Jesus taught is more seen in its violation than in its observance.

  2. I agree with most of your observation, "It's hard, in some ways, to blame the rich for piling up more wealth at the expense of the poor. They do it because they can."

    I don't blame, or argue with, or criticize the rich for piling up more wealth. My argument comes at two points: What they do with it after they get it, and how they prevent the poor from having the same opportunity to rise economically–so it's the "at the expense of the poor" part that I don't agree with.

    We've known generous-hearted and wealthy Christians who spread their wealth and efforts widely in ways to assist the poor, not just in direct handouts or institutional assistance to the most desperately impoverished and needy, but in ways to give them a hand up. I think of R.G. LeTourneau who gave away 90% and lived on 10% of his income, perhaps the most striking example. Others of similar bent, if not magnitude, included such men as Maxie Jarman and Owen Cooper, to name only a couple of other prominent ones.

    LeTourneau founded a school and made it possible for returning GI's–and others later–to get an education and improve their economic condition.

    But when the top 10% want special tax considerations so that they pay at a lower effective rate than the bottom 90%, or place their money completely beyond the reach of tax collectors in the first place, and when the top 10% own more than 40% of the nation's wealth, or when the top 1% own more of it than the bottom 20%, then "free enterprise" has run amok–at least in my opinion.

    And when the top 10% live in lavishly obscene affluence while the botton 10% go without adequate food, shelter, health care, and education, that's economic injustice on a scale that even Jesus never witnessed. And how we who claim to follow him can countenance it without remonstration is beyond me!

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