‘When I feed the poor, they call me a saint; when I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.’” —Archbishop Dom Helder Camara
There is an alarming lamentation among economists, social and political commentators, and progressive voices for economic justice, that while household incomes have essentially remained stagnant since the mid 1980s, in the same period corporate profits and executive compensation have grown at mind-boggling rates. Fifty percent of income resources now go to the top ten percent, while the other fifty percent is shared by the bottom ninety percent. This lamentation should get our attention because of the ramifications of this kind of inequity for the stability of any society. Peace does not proliferate where justice has no foundation. This is a fact of life…everywhere.
Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics, a professor at Columbia and a former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers and chief economist for the World Bank has observed the following:
“Our skyrocketing inequality – so contrary to our meritocratic ideal of America as a place where anyone with hard work and talent can “make it” – means that those who are born to parents of limited means are likely never to live up to their potential. Children in other rich countries like Canada, France, Germany and Sweden have a better chance of doing better than their parents did than American kids have. More than a fifth of our children live in poverty – the second worst of all the advanced economies, putting us behind countries like Bulgaria, Latvia and Greece.”
In a national culture where American exceptionalism has become the cliched boast of those whose political ambitions drive them to side with those who have a vested interest in the maintenance of the status quo, we must ask ourselves whether or not this is the “exceptionalism” we want to engender going forward. What can we expect to be the future of a society in which the social, political, and economic ambitions of the few creates the kind of disparity that drives the majority toward a veritable cliff of hopelessness? Our nation’s destiny is without doubt severely compromised when the hope of the few creates despair among the many.
Zoe Carpenter, writing in The Nation, observes the following:
“It’s no secret that this sort of economic inequality is increasing nationwide; the disparity between America’s richest and poorest is the widest it’s been since the Roaring Twenties. Less discussed are the gaps in life expectancy that have widened over the past twenty-five years between America’s counties, cities and neighborhoods. While the country as a whole has gotten richer and healthier, the poor have gotten poorer, the middle class has shrunk and American’s without high school diplomas have seen their life expectancy slide back to what it was in the 1950’s. Economic inequalities manifest not in numbers, but in sick and dying bodies.”
The stark reality of our national life is that the growing inequalities in our economy are sadly expressed in crime and violence, in diminished access to quality education, and in the diminished health and life expectancy of the many who struggle to make ends meet. It is convenient for pompous conservatives to point the finger at the presumed “immorality” of the disadvantaged. By objectifying the unwed parent they are able to direct attention away from more substantial issues among us. For example, we might be asking questions as to whether it is moral for a fast food chain to bank billions of dollars in corporate profits while denying its workers a livable wage.
We must not allow ourselves to be distracted by the well developed sleight of tongue of our socio/economic/cultural detractors, who want to talk about individual responsibility while corporate entities get to call their lack of a collective moral orientation “success”. It is time to ask ourselves some hard questions about the kind of nation we are. Is community only essential when we want to mobilize the children of the working class to shed their blood in wars that have their raison d’etre in the undisclosed economic motivations of the neoconservative class?
Jesus of Nazareth, whom many conservatives worship as their “Savior”, rebuked those pointing their fingers at those who are too disadvantaged to effectively answer the charge of "immorality" with the instruction, and here I paraphrase… Remove the log from your own eye before you talk about the speck in the eyes of others! As for this Jesus, he was a man surrounded by the working class. He himself is believed by many to have been, among other things, a carpenter. This was a man who understood the predicament of the Mary Magdalenes of his world. He did not look down his nose at fishermen among whom he moved easily, his buddy Peter being one of them. He got Matthew, a tax collector, to leave a profession that many saw as oppressive and join him in the work of liberation. Jesus stood up for the poor, as his embrace of that well read mission statement from Isaiah 61 shows. The good news he proclaimed to the poor was bad news for those who gained from keeping things the way they were.
There is no doubt in my mind that today’s conservative would condemn this Nazarene’s “social gospel” as unadulterated Marxism. His relationship with the political leadership and its economic partners was by no means a comfortable one. Remember that incident with the “money changers” in the temple? These economic vampires were using their monopoly of the currency supply to make exorbitant profits, charging “whatever the market would bear” for coins that the people needed to pay their annual Temple tax. Jesus physically threw them out of the Temple after branding them “thieves”. Days later these same bankers called for his death. How dare he do anything to compromise their hard earned profit margins.
According to Bloomberg, the average CEO makes 204 times the salary of the average employee. Is this what we mean in fact when we spout off about “American exceptionalism”? How long will civility hold when the social contract engendered by our economic relationships continues to guarantee the fecundity of the few at the expense of the many? Simply put, how long can we expect that the poor will accept that their lot in this life is to be fodder for the ambitions of the greed rich?