A Few Words on Income Inequality

10 You people hate anyone who challenges injustice and speaks the whole truth in court. 11 You have oppressed the poor and robbed them of their grain. And so you will not live in the fine stone houses you build or drink wine from the beautiful vineyards you plant. 12 I know how terrible your sins are and how many crimes you have committed. You persecute good people, take bribes, and prevent the poor from getting justice in the courts. 13 And so, keeping quiet in such evil times is the smart thing to do! -Amos 5

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), eleven percent of American households were classified as “food insecure” at some point in 2018. This means that over 37 million people, residing in what is considered the wealthiest nation in the world’s history, struggled to put food on their own tables last year.

Meanwhile, the wealthiest one percent of Americans possess more wealth than the bottom ninety percent of the nation. Income inequality is worse now than at any point since the 1920’s, the decade that preceded the Great Depression.

I will never forget the week that the financial crisis hit in 2008. I was a graduate student and working in a high end restaurant. I remember this week well because, in my nearly decade and a half of waiting tables, this was by far my most profitable week. This was occurring while people were losing their homes as subprime mortgages backfired on families who lost everything.

It took years for the American economy to recover and the amazing thing is that the men who caused the crisis from banking to real estate and Wall Street were never held accountable. To be clear, the financial crisis was a bipartisan effort. It was Bill Clinton who signed a bill repealing the Glass-Steagall Act, which had prevented the consolidation (or monopolizing) of banks since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

And although it is true that the economy has shown good signs for the past several years (dating back to the Obama administration), it is also true that, globally, eight in every ten dollars of new wealth goes to the wealthiest one percent. Here, at least, the U.S. is proving to be the world leader.

This past week, the president, in preparing to visit California, blasted the state for its mishandling of the homeless population. Currently over a half a million people in American sleep on the streets, many in West Coast cities, for a variety of reasons that range from economic conditions making it increasingly difficult to afford housing and food, to a concentration of social services. In preparation for the president’s visit, Forbes magazine, a publication founded by its billionaire namesake and known for ranking the richest people in America, published a widely circulated opinion article demonizing people living on the streets and blaming policies that are too “progressive”.

Of course, the article pretends that economic conditions exist in a vacuum, created by local governments, and it further pretends that truly progressive policies have been historically enacted on a local level in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. According to this logic, the practice of sweeping out homeless encampments and giving one-way bus tickets out of town is a progressive policy (short response, it is not). A progressive policy would look more like investing in permanent housing, creating a job guarantee, and funding this project by taxing the wealthy at a much higher rate. And before we say it’s impossible to achieve, all of this and more was a part of the New Deal, that lifted the US out of the Great Depression.

The larger issue, however, is the fact that, instead of sounding an alarm about hundreds of thousands of our neighbors having nowhere to live while others live in opulence, we simply demonize and blame the homeless for their lot in life. And why not, if it can score political points and reinforce the idea that wealth is a sign of moral superiority, while simultaneously blinding its readers to the issues that actually affect their everyday lives?

Middle Class Problems

While abject poverty, visible within a mile or so from multi-million dollar real estate developments puts a fine point on the fact that our economic system, as it stands, politicians from both parties gear their messages toward the “middle class”. A generation or two ago, this referred to the group of people who could afford to buy a house, raise a family and go to college and retire comfortably.

Today we can read article after article complaining about the avocado toast eating, craft beer drinking millennial generation who is, for whatever reason not buying houses, investing in the stock market or in their own retirement. Seldom are any of these symptoms linked to the fact that 44 million people owe an average of $38,000 in student loan debt (though many of us owe substantially more than the average).

A Solution?

I believe that the corruption mentioned in the preceding paragraphs is self-evident enough not to belabor the point. And anyway, it is highly unlikely anyone reading these words has created these conditions. The real question becomes, who is best set up to address the problem, to offer the solution? And the reason I do not believe the answer lies primarily in nonprofits, philanthropy or the church, is that the best any of these organizations can offer is relief. Nonprofits are not systems of justice, they do not govern laws, hold the powerful accountable or collect taxes. Neither do churches or philanthropic causes.

This is where we, as a democracy, can make a real impact. We can decide, collectively, to enact laws that compel corporations to employ American workers at fair wages. We can decide, collectively, to hold the wealthy to account when they put hundreds of thousands of people out on the streets while collecting out-sized bonuses. We can decide, collectively, to make sure companies like Amazon pay federal income taxes, while also holding them to their obligation to pay their workers a living wage.

Poverty is not inevitable on the scale we see today. It is not a fact of nature that some will be obscenely wealthy while others will have nowhere to use the bathroom. It is not inescapable that, in order to get an education you must turn over your financial future. There is not space here to discuss the economic ramifications of our broken healthcare system, which causes hundreds of thousands of people to file bankruptcy each year while insurance executives make obscene amounts of money, nor the intersectionality of race, mass incarceration and generational poverty.

When I think about what it means to be a Christian it seems fundamental to me that I am for solutions that give voice to the poor and oppose those who would become rich at the expense of the vulnerable. And when I see problems as large as they present themselves I am not interested in small solutions. If that makes me a troublemaker, so be it. If that makes me a lefty, so be it. But as I look around, I can’t help but see the great damage that business as usual has brought upon my neighbors.

Many others agree and they are taking their voice to the streets, going on strike for equitable pay and speaking out against violence done to their communities in the name of “free markets”, real estate ventures, deregulation and more. With them I raise my voice and join the chorus.

14 Make it your aim to do what is right, not what is evil, so that you may live. Then the Lord God Almighty really will be with you, as you claim he is. 15 Hate what is evil, love what is right, and see that justice prevails in the courts. Perhaps the Lord will be merciful to the people of this nation who are still left alive.

 

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