No country for the poor

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz explains a few of the reasons that income, power and opportunity flow primarily to the most privileged people in our country:

[O]ne big part of the reason we have so much inequality is that the top 1 percent want it that way. The most obvious example involves tax policy. Lowering tax rates on capital gains, which is how the rich receive a large portion of their income, has given the wealthiest Americans close to a free ride. Monopolies and near monopolies have always been a source of economic power—from John D. Rockefeller at the beginning of the last century to Bill Gates at the end. Lax enforcement of anti-trust laws, especially during Republican administrations, has been a godsend to the top 1 percent. Much of today’s inequality is due to manipulation of the financial system, enabled by changes in the rules that have been bought and paid for by the financial industry itself—one of its best investments ever. The government lent money to financial institutions at close to 0 percent interest and provided generous bailouts on favorable terms when all else failed. Regulators turned a blind eye to a lack of transparency and to conflicts of interest.

When you look at the sheer volume of wealth controlled by the top 1 percent in this country, it’s tempting to see our growing inequality as a quintessentially American achievement—we started way behind the pack, but now we’re doing inequality on a world-class level. And it looks as if we’ll be building on this achievement for years to come, because what made it possible is self-reinforcing. Wealth begets power, which begets more wealth. During the savings-and-loan scandal of the 1980s—a scandal whose dimensions, by today’s standards, seem almost quaint—the banker Charles Keating was asked by a congressional committee whether the $1.5 million he had spread among a few key elected officials could actually buy influence. “I certainly hope so,” he replied. The Supreme Court, in its recent Citizens United case, has enshrined the right of corporations to buy government, by removing limitations on campaign spending. The personal and the political are today in perfect alignment. Virtually all U.S. senators, and most of the representatives in the House, are members of the top 1 percent when they arrive, are kept in office by money from the top 1 percent, and know that if they serve the top 1 percent well they will be rewarded by the top 1 percent when they leave office.


Of all the costs imposed on our society by the top 1 percent, perhaps the greatest is this: the erosion of our sense of identity, in which fair play, equality of opportunity, and a sense of community are so important. America has long prided itself on being a fair society, where everyone has an equal chance of getting ahead, but the statistics suggest otherwise: the chances of a poor citizen, or even a middle-class citizen, making it to the top in America are smaller than in many countries of Europe. The cards are stacked against them.

Cathy Lee Grossman of USA Today has also noticed that the poor and elderly are in Washington’s crosshairs, and proposed an innovative solution:

Grannies and babies and struggling parents could figure out a gimmick for tying their needs for food, medicine, preventive health services, shelter and education to, say, an inability to have enough money to buy a gun and carry it everywhere from playground to nursing home.

Isn’t it un-American and discriminatory for only the prosperous to be able to bear arms? Gun rights never lose in legislative fights these days, do they?

Since folks who say they must have guns — to protect them against God knows what — the poor and elderly, whose religious champions are politely acknowledged and ignored, could have the biggest weapons in lobbying on their side.

So, Granny, get your gun.

Seriously, though, what response should Christians have toward income inequality and the dominance of our society by the super rich? How can we better articulate the hardship it fosters in our country? How can we explain the ways in which it is a theological issue?

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