Wealth and Poverty.

Wealth and Poverty
Richard E. Johnson, Sociology Department
Brigham Young University, 1994
I regularly teach a course on Current Social Problems at BYU. As students in the class become exposed to the extent and seriousness of problems facing our nation today, many conclude that the Millennium must be just around the corner because America seems to be plagued by unprecedented evil.
I am troubled by several aspects of their reasoning. First, it seems rather narrow-minded for American students to evaluate the state of humankind and the fate of the planet almost solely on the basis of America’s social problems. Circumstances in the rest of the world just might also play a role in the timing of the Millennium. Second, the criteria used to judge the “badness” of American society strike me as rather limited. Almost every indictment I hear of the nation’s moral climate is based on observations about sex, drugs, street crime, and/or violence. I wonder why wealth and poverty almost never come to mind in evaluations of human societies. Finally, the view that “everything must be worse here and now” rings of parochialism and historical ignorance.
Judging the relative seriousness of social problems or the extent of sin across time and place is difficult if not impossible. That is not my purpose here. Nevertheless, it seems safe to conclude that the overall pattern of “always worse” almost never applies (compare Hunter, 1993). Scriptures and secular history alike abound with awful accounts of massive brutality, perversion, suffering, and indifference. I believe modern America faces serious social and moral problems. However, I seriously question the notion that unprecedented evil–especially in the forms of sex, drugs, street crime, and violence–is a documented fact.
I claim no special right or ability to judge the moral condition of modern America, but I believe that moral self-assessment is an obligation that is vital to the quality of life of any individual or group. We should all benefit from reflecting on the underlying values and morality of all social systems to which we belong. Surely, we will not all reach the same conclusions. We will probably not even begin with the same definitions or premises. I freely admit to applying a very personal and subjective “moral measuring rod” to American society, one that is based on LDS scriptures and my interpretation of their meaning. I know I cannot be objective, and I know I may be wrong. In many ways, I hope I am wrong.
It seems to me that if we are serious about contemplating the moral state of contemporary American society, we must begin by broadening or revising the usual measures of morality. It is possible that the traditional sins of sex, drugs, crime, and violence may not even be the most appropriate markers as we search for signs of “unprecedented evil.” While such behaviors are certainly proscribed in the scriptures, the most powerful and consistent scriptural warnings given to those who live in the “last days” (particularly as found in the Book of Mormon) center around a single set of interwoven evils–the sins of materialism, consumerism, worldly vanity or pride, and socioeconomic inequality. These traits and conditions are unequivocally condemned throughout LDS scriptures. Moreover, they are generally described as the root from which the more “traditional sins” take nourishment, and as the ultimate cause of both personal and social destruction. (See, for example, as a beginning list: 1 Nephi 22:23; 2 Nephi 9:30,51, 26:20,31, 28:12-13; Jacob 2:13-19,21; Mosiah 4:16-18,21-23; Alma 1:26-32, 4:6-15, 5:53-56, 16:15-16,21, 31:24-30, 34:28-29,40, 60:32; Helaman 3:33-36, 4:11-12, 6:17, 7:20-21, 12:1-3, 13:21-22,27-28; 3 Nephi 6:10-15, 24:5, 26:19; 4 Nephi 1:3,24-26,43; Mormon 8:35-41; Doctrine and Covenants 6:7, 11:7, 38:26, 49:19-20, 52:40, 56:16-19, 59:17-20, 70:14, 78:5-6, 82:17-19, 104:14-18, 105:3, 117:4, 121:34-37; Moses 7:18; Matthew 6:24, 19:21-24, 25:31-46; Mark 4:19, 10:21-25, 12:38-44; Luke 1:53, 3:10-13, 6:20,24, 8:14, 12:15-21, 14:11-13, 16:13-15,19-31, 18:22-25, 21:1-4; Acts 2:44-45, 4:32-35; 2 Corinthians 8:13-15; Galatians 2:10; 1 Timothy 3:3-8, 6:5-10,17-19; 2 Timothy 3:1-2; Titus 1:7; James 1:27, 2:1-9, 5:1-6; 1 John 2:15-17, 3:17.)
In view of these repeated scriptural pronouncements, it seems that the most appropriate measure of any group’s moral climate may be the extent to which that group is characterized by selfish, prideful striving for the “lifestyles of the rich and famous.” The consequences of that individualistic and hedonistic materialism–inequality, suffering, and neglect–then become additional indicators of evil in their own right. I choose these as my measures of sinfulness here. Judging from the reactions of my students (who are typically “active LDS” from relatively comfortable socioeconomic backgrounds), these are not commonly employed measures of immorality or evil. Some students simply cannot believe that any legal and socially acceptable behaviors may in truth be as immoral as are many traditionally-condemned crimes. Others are shocked by the suggestion that morality could have anything to do with either the seeking or obtaining of a high standard of living, or with the presence of grossly unequal standards of living. Still others agree that a “high” standard of material comfort in the midst of poverty may in fact be a form of selfishness or oppression, but then are usually quick to define “high” as well above their own level.
These responses are not at all surprising. “Getting rich” and “getting ahead” (of others) have been ingrained in most Americans’ minds not merely as morally neutral cultural goals, but as highly valued and righteous pursuits. It is certainly understandable that mainstream American Mormons and typical BYU students are more inclined to condemn the behavior of “traditional sinners” (thieves, addicts, prostitutes, etc.) than to condemn the behavior of materialistic consumers of legal goods obtained by legal means. After all, traditional sinners are clearly self-indulgent, satisfying their whims and appetites for comfort or pleasure through sexual, chemical, or violent means. And innocent others clearly suffer because of their self-indulgence.
We law-abiding high-living consumers, on the other hand, satisfy our self-indulgent whims and appetites for comfort or pleasure through clearly superior means–we buy ever-larger houses and fill them with ever-more goodies. “And where is the harm in that?” we ask, not seeking or wanting an answer. We deny the obvious truth that there is always a more Christian use for money that is spent self-indulgently. We even have the audacity to tell ourselves and others that we “earn” or “deserve” the goodies that give us comfort and pleasure. We seem to have little difficulty divorcing wealth, materialism, and self-indulgent consumption from serious contemplation of Christian morality.
I am frankly confused and troubled by the connection between morality and economic inequality that I see in our holy writings. I often fear, for example, that my “modest” American lifestyle may represent a sinfully “high” level of comfort and convenience, given what I know about inequality and destitution in America and throughout the world. I fear too that our traditional definitions of morality–our divisions of the world into the “good guys” and the “bad guys”–are based on convenience and rationalization as much as upon empirical reality or revealed truth.
Whether or not materialism, poverty, and inequality are the best measures of a society’s level of immorality, the fact is that these conditions are flourishing in America today. In particular, there is firm empirical evidence of two important trends. First, the distribution of income and wealth in America is growing more unequal. Second, increasing numbers of American children are growing up in poverty and neglect.
While various studies define terms differently and employ a variety of measures of income, it is safe to conclude that since 1980 in America, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer (Nasar, 1992c; Phillips, 1990; Barlett and Steele, 1992; Dentzer, 1994). The Census Bureau reports that the richest one-fifth of American households received almost twelve times the income of the same number of the poorest households in 1990 (46.6 percent versus 3.9 percent). The comparable rich-to-poor-fifths ratio was 10.5 in 1980 (44.1 percent versus 4.2 percent) (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1991). By yet another measure, the average real income (adjusted for inflation) of the bottom fifth of American workers declined 10 percent from 1980 to 1990, while the real income of the top one percent jumped 122 percent during the same period (reported in Coleman and Cressey, 1993:142).
This growing income inequality is occurring fastest among the very rich and the very poor, and it has not been slowed by the structure of taxation. For example, the after-tax real income (adjusted for inflation) of the bottom one-tenth of American families dropped from $3528 to $3157 (in 1987 dollars) between 1977 and 1988. The after-tax real income of the top one-tenth rose from $174,498 to $303, 900 during that same period. In other words, the poor lost 11 percent of their spendable income while the wealthy increased theirs by 74 percent (Zuckerman, 1988; see also Nasar, 1992a).
As troubling as they may be, statistics on income inequality hide two even more disturbing truths. First, abstract numbers fail to capture the human misery that poverty often entails. Income inequality represents more than mere differences in the sizes of the piles of “goodies” that families can afford. For millions of families at the bottom of the distribution–even in affluent America–we are talking about malnutrition, little or no access to health care or education, homelessness, and bleak and utter hopelessness.
Income statistics also mask the fact that wealth–total assets, genuine access to goods and services–is much more unequally distributed than is annual income. While the top one-fifth of U.S. households receive a bit over 45% of the income each year, the top one-tenth own about 70% of the wealth (Institute for Social Research, 1987:3-5). Moreover, the proportion of the total wealth controlled by the top one-half of one percent (the very rich) increased by 38% from the 1960s to the 1980s (Joint Economic Committee of the United States Congress, 1986). Meanwhile, the bottom 20 percent of the population owned -0.4 percent (more debts than assets) of the wealth in the 1980s. [Kerbo, 1991:40).
The “very rich” top one-half of one percent fared even better during the 1980s. In a report released by the Economic Policy Institute, economist Edward Wolff shows that their average net wealth increased from $8.5 million in 1983 to $10.7 million in 1989, a rise of 26 percent over six years. Put another way, the top one-half of one percent accumulated 55 percent of all the increase in net wealth in the United States between 1983 and 1989. The rest of the increase went to those almost as wealthy. The net wealth of the bottom 80 percent of Americans, by contrast, went down by an average of 6 percent over the same period. Wolff concludes that by 1989, the concentration of American wealth was more extreme than at any time since 1929 (Wolff, 1992; see also U.S. News and World Report, 1992; Wolff, 1993). And there is no indication that this trend is reversing in the 1990s (Dentzer, 1994).
While the wealthy control ever-larger shares of the “American pie,” poverty and homelessness among our children are becoming increasingly widespread. Official poverty in the United States is measured in a rather arbitrary manner, and its validity has been debated by experts since its inception around 1960. Any poverty statistics are therefore subject to varied interpretations, but this is not the place to discuss measurement details. I will simply use the official figures, noting that the poverty line has been adjusted over the years to supposedly reflect changes in the cost of living, but that most experts (including the developer of the original poverty line) believe that more accurate adjustments would show even more persons in poverty today compared to the past (Orshansky, 1993; Schwarz and Volgy, 1992).
The percent of Americans in poverty declined substantially during the 1960s, remained stable through most of the 1970s, then jumped significantly during the recession years of the early 1980s. For the past decade, the rate has hovered around 13 to 14 percent poor, rising to 14.5 in 1992. In raw numbers, there were 37 million officially poor Americans of all ages in 1992 (1992 poverty statistics from the U.S. Bureau of the Census are summarized in a non-technical fashion in Newsweek, 1993:44). Meanwhile, the poverty rate among America’s children has consistently increased. The percent of children (defined as under age 18) in poverty rose from 15 percent in 1970 to 18 percent in 1980 to 22 percent in 1992–almost one of every four. In raw numbers, about 14 million of America’s children are now living in poverty, compared to about 11 million in 1980 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1993:469; Newsweek, 1994:44).
Since 1980, while the wealthy have succeeded in vastly increasing their already abundant resources, more and more children in this country have fallen into or been born into poverty. Ironically, many disadvantaged infants escape the struggle. America’s infant mortality rate is higher than virtually every other modern industrialized nation, primarily because of very high death rates among infants born to poor families (Haub and Yanagishita, 1991; National Center for Health Statistics, 1992).
Most poor infants, of course, grow to become poor children. They are often also hungry and sick children, even in affluent America. A study released by the Food Research and Action Center in 1994, for example, estimated that 5.5 million American children are malnourished (reported in Shapiro et al., 1994:59). As many as 30 million Americans of all ages suffer chronic hunger (Sivard, 1991:48). Even more–between 35 and 40 million–have no public or private medical insurance coverage, including 15 percent of all American children (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1993:116). While rates of immunization for childhood diseases in the United States are lower than those in most industrial nations, the cost of giving a child all of the recommended immunizations rose more than 1000 percent from 1977 to 1992 (Roberts, 1994; Rosenthal, 1993).
Education is presumed by many to be a readily available means of escape from poverty, but poverty in America is highly correlated with adult illiteracy and lack of education, as well as severely reduced educational opportunities for children (Kozol, 1985, 1991; Manski, 1992). And for homeless children, of course, adequate education is virtually impossible.
Although almost everyone agrees that the number of homeless Americans has increased over the past decade, there is wide disagreement over the precise meaning or extent of homelessness. Reasonable estimates range from well under one million to well over three million (Coleman and Cressey, 1993:146-147). The profile of the homeless has changed along with their numbers. The “traditional homeless” (alcoholics, addicts, traumatized war veterans, unemployables) are being joined in increasing numbers by the “new homeless”–single mothers with children, working poor, throwaway teenagers, and deinstitutionalized mental patients. Probably between one-fourth and one-third of today’s homeless are in family units. And children may comprise more than 15 percent of all homeless Americans (Blau, 1992; Wright, 1988). Millions of other poor and not-so-poor families are just “one bad day” from homelessness. That bad day could be marked by a fire, the death of a breadwinner, a divorce, an illness or accident, or the closing of a factory.
In sum, rising numbers of Americans, millions of them children, suffer needless death or face lives of poverty, hunger, inadequate education and health care, and homelessness. All of this occurs in the midst of wealth almost unimaginable to the vast majority of the planet’s past or present inhabitants; all of this occurs while the rich get richer. How can these circumstances not be considered a moral indictment? How can Americans face these facts without a sense of shame?
Why have these trends occurred? At the risk of tremendous oversimplification, let me offer a “short list” of seven possible contributing factors. Each may or may not have anything to do with the moral quality of American society.
(1) There has been a prolonged and general decline in America’s “smokestack industries.” Basic manufacturing plants, which often paid relatively high union wages for unskilled or semi-skilled labor, have been closing in the face of increased international competition and a global transition into hi-tech industries. Almost all markets are now worldwide. Operations in other countries benefit from cheaper labor and more recently built–and therefore more modern and efficient–facilities. Indeed, most of America’s urban “underclass” areas today were once healthy communities sustained by factories which are now closed and have not been replaced. Displaced American workers are often untrained for newer hi-tech jobs, which are located in different areas and do not pay well even when they are obtained (Reich, 1987, Wilson, 1987).
(2) Within American industry, conditions have allowed salaries and wages to become increasingly unequal. Simply put, the bargaining position of American workers has been eroded by the availability of cheap foreign labor, the increasing availability of American female labor, and the failure of labor unions to gain a strong foothold in newer, hi-tech industries. Unions (or non-union workers) rarely succeed in obtaining higher wages when others will do the same work for less. Nowadays, those “others” include desperate workers all over the world. Successful labor movements also require strong feelings of discontent among workers. Meanwhile, discontent has been diffused in America in part through a tremendous increase in the number of dual-income families. A single low income, which would be very aggravating if it were the sole means of family support, does not seem so bad when pooled with another low income.
Corporate leaders in the United States are not inclined to share the wealth. Given the American value of getting all you can for yourself, it should be no surprise that the top executives of U.S. corporations often make more than one hundred times the income of their factory workers. The ratio between chief executive and factory worker, which averaged 93 to 1 in one American study in 1988 (up from 29 to 1 in 1979 and 12 to 1 in 1960), is many times lower in many very successful capitalist countries (Phillips, 1990; Reich, 1991). More recent news is no more encouraging. “From 1989 through mid-1993, earnings fell for most American workers, yet the drop was sharpest for those at the lower end of the income scale. New surveys show that the average corporate CEO earns 149 times the pay of the average factory worker, while nearly 18 percent of full-time workers don’t make enough to keep a family of four out of poverty” (Dentzer 1994:53).
(3) There has been a slowing or stagnation in the growth of available wealth relative to the size of the population in America. An ever-growing economic pie could be divided very unevenly without anyone being left with too small a piece to subsist. But an increasingly unequal division of a finite pie must eventually leave some with only crumbs. Real median household income (controlling for the effects of inflation) doubled from 1950 to the early 1970s in the United States, but has fluctuated around the same level for the past two decades (Gill et al., 1992:428). Real average weekly earnings increased over 60 percent from 1950 to the early 1970s, but declined almost 20 percent from the early 1970s to 1990 (Gill et al., 1992:428). While median income for female workers did rise about 40 percent from 1970 to 1990 (due to the women’s movement and more women devoting more of their energies to employment outside of the home), real median income for male workers declined slightly over the same period (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1993:466). The net result is that the only type of American household that has been able to continue advancing economically over the past twenty years is the intact, two-worker household (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1993:465). A return to an era of ever-increasing living standards seems neither likely nor ecologically viable. Current national and world economic conditions suggest that there is only one way to reasonably expect those who now receive only crumbs from the American pie to be able to “scrape up enough” for a home, food, education, and health care–others must take a smaller share.
(4) Our nation has witnessed a substantial increase in some population categories that have always been at high risk of being poor. One of the fastest growing categories of the poor is members of single-mother families. Members of single-mother families have always been at higher-than-average risk of poverty, but the sheer number of single-mother families has grown dramatically in recent years, due primarily to increases in divorce and out-of-wedlock births. In 1970, 11 percent of American children lived with a mother and no father. By 1991, the figure had risen to 23 percent (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992:55). While the poverty rate for female-headed families has not changed much, such families comprised 23 percent of all poor families in 1959 and 53 percent of all poor families in 1990 (Sullivan and Thompson, 1994:171). Another category of Americans which has always been disproportionately poor is members of racial and ethnic minority groups, and some of those groups have also increased in size substantially over the past few decades. One observer noted in 1988, for example, that “There are now 3.3 million more Americans below the poverty line than in 1980…Nearly 2 million are Hispanic. The number of Hispanics is increasing five times faster than the total population; half comes from migration” (Samuelson, 1988:49).
(5) Sexism and racism persist in America and prevent members of high risk groups (like female-headed families and racial and ethnic minorities) from escaping or avoiding poverty at the same rate that others do. Gender, race, and ethnicity would not be important factors in predicting poverty rates in a society free from prejudice and discrimination. In spite of what many of my fellow white males seem to believe, research continues to show that equally qualified minorities and women are not afforded the same opportunities for employment and income that white males are afforded. Progress toward equal socioeconomic opportunity remains slow in numerous areas, particularly for certain racial and ethnic groups. By every measure of destitution and disadvantage mentioned earlier ( poverty, infant mortality, hunger, inadequate education, and inadequate health care), blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans continue to experience rates much higher than–and usually more than double–rates for whites (see Coleman and Cressey, 1993:chapters 6,7,10; Eitzen and Baca Zinn, 1994:chapters 2,6,7,8; Sullivan and Thompson, 1994:chapters 5,6,7).
(6) The unavailability of affordable child care or parental leave programs makes employment almost impossible for poor single mothers and very difficult for poor two-parent families. Among all industrial nations in the world, the United States ranks at or near the bottom in efforts to accommodate the needs of working parents. It is difficult to find another society that penalizes its members economically for having children as much as ours does, or that so neglects the needs of children of working parents (Smolowe, 1992; Shanker, 1990; Baca Zinn and Eitzen, 1993:178-179; Lubeck and Garrett, 1988; Creighton, 1993).
(7) Finally, and I believe most relevant to the moral questions that guide this analysis, public attitudes and policies regarding the poor have contributed immeasurably to recent increases in inequality and deprivation. Frankly, I am continually amazed at the strength and harshness of the anti-poor attitudes exhibited by some of my students, and at their stubborn unwillingness to reconsider their stereotypes on the basis of clear contradictory evidence. Anti-poor attitudes come in a wide variety of hues, but the predominant theme is that the poor have determined their own lot in life because they are lazy, stupid, and/or satisfied with the way they live–that they “deserve” to be poor.
From a Christian point of view, neglect of the poor appears to be inexcusable for any reason. From an empirical perspective, there is no evidence that the poor as a group are any more “deserving” of their plight than is anyone else. Numerous studies show that the poor as a group have the same goals, desires, work ethic, and work habits of the non-poor as a group. The Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan has summarized findings relative to this matter over the years in their ISR Newsletter publication. A sampling of conclusions from that source includes the following: Accumulation of wealth “is strongly influenced by chance: having the right parents or the right genes or being in the right place at the right time.” Hard work and frugality “are as easily found among the poor as among the rich” (1987:4). “We found no significant effects of motives on families’ economic outcomes” (1985:3). “The temporarily poor are quite similar to the population as a whole. There appears to be virtually no attribute that distinguishes them from the rest of society. Few of us are completely immune to such misfortunes as personal illness, adverse local or national economic conditions, the death of a spouse, or the breakup of a marriage…On the other hand, the 2 percent who were persistently poor differ in many demographic characteristics from both the temporarily poor and the population at large, although there is little evidence that personality traits such as motivation, orientation toward the future, and sense of control affect the economic status of the persistently poor.” Rather, the persistently poor are different in that they are “affected by severely restricted labor market opportunities” [based on their age, race, and marital status] (1984:3-4).
In short, poor Americans are poor primarily because they were born poor, have few opportunities to escape poverty, have characteristics that are socially devalued (including race, gender, and age), or have “landed” in an unfavorable economic setting–not because they decide to be lazy. It makes just as much sense to blame more than a small fraction of current poverty on individual laziness as it does to cite laziness as the cause of the Great Depression of the 1930s. (For related data and similar conclusions, see also Garfinkel and Haveman, 1977; Nasar, 1992b; Jaynes, 1989; Ryan, 1976; Katz, 1989.)
Certainly, some poor folks should heed the traditional advice to “get a job.” However, full-time jobs are often very difficult to obtain. And even if obtained, full-time employment hardly amounts to a guarantee of escape from poverty or access to adequate housing, education, or health care. A staggering 40 percent of all year-round, full-time workers in the United States earn less than it takes to lift a family of four out of poverty (Schwarz and Volgy, 1992). Moreover, approximately half of all poor Americans are too old or too young to work, and most of the rest already work or would need substantial child care assistance to make work feasible (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992:15,457).
Empirical data and Christian teachings notwithstanding, it is fashionable in the United States to vilify, stigmatize, and neglect the disadvantaged and destitute. The lessons of the Great Depression and World War II–that hardships are shared by all and best overcome through common effort–have been relentlessly overwhelmed in succeeding decades by a tide of individualistic materialism and affluence. As a people, Americans seem to have become increasingly motivated by individualistic consumption over the past few decades, climaxing in its open acceptance as a way of life in the 1980s. Changes in public policies reflect this trend, as those who influence such policies have increasingly shaped them to suit their own self-interests at the expense of others. The less privileged and powerful (who may be just as uninterested in the common good but merely less able to translate their desires into results) are being left behind. A huge number of the stragglers are children, who are not only being neglected, but are being taught that taking all you can for yourself and neglecting others is an appropriate way to live.
I almost hesitate to support my claim of self-interested and neglectful public policies by mentioning specifics, as some readers will immediately lose sight of the larger purpose of this analysis and become obsessed with political and partisan issues. I know this to be true from responses to my previous writing on this topic (Johnson, 1990), but rising inequality and destitution simply cannot be understood without looking at government programs and policies.
Beginning with tax policies, political rhetoric would have us believe that the U.S. tax structure is “progressive,” taking a larger proportion of the incomes of those who have more. This is hardly the case. Describing changes that occurred in the decade from 1980 to 1990, one analyst concluded, “The overall tax burden–federal, state, and local–ceased being progressive, so rich and poor now give about the same percentage of their income to tax collectors. All of these shifts were unprecedented in the port-World War II era” (Taylor, 1990:12). A more recent and extensive study by Barlett and Steele (1994) shows that major changes in federal income and Social Security taxes since the 1950s, and especially those enacted during the 1980s, were mostly “regressive,” taking a larger share from those who already had less. The combined federal income tax and Social Security tax rate for millionaires, for example, dropped from 48% in 1953 to 27% in 1991, while the same rate for middle-income families rose from 11% to 18%. Even taking into account the slightly more progressive tax revisions of 1993, the authors conclude that the net changes over the past fifty years clearly favor the wealthy at the expense of the poor and the middle class.
The other side of the budget coin is government spending, which brings us to yet another pernicious public stereotype regarding the poor. There is widespread belief, at least among my students, that public spending on the poor is a major government expense and a significant cause of budget deficits. Furthermore, the poor’s willingness to “take something for nothing” is cited as proof of their degeneracy. Not a few students ask, “Why should I work hard just so others can receive a handout?” That is certainly a valid public policy question, and asking it should not necessarily call into question one’s morality. The problem is that it is misdirected. Vastly greater sums of public money are doled out to the non-poor in “wealthfare” than to the poor via welfare. The difference is that the price of benefits to the poor includes public humiliation and loss of self-respect, while the rest of us take our handouts with clear consciences and unsullied reputations.
“Wealthfare” abounds in the United States, including direct subsidies and credit to numerous businesses and corporations, tax deductions for which only the non-poor qualify, reduced-tax forms of income available almost solely to the more affluent, non-taxed employer-paid medical insurance premiums, social security payments to the wealthy far above the amount they contributed, free medical care based on age and regardless of financial need, and many more (see Peterson, 1988).
As one example, the federal government spends more on health care for the richest 10 percent of elderly Medicare beneficiaries than it does for all job training, Head Start, and Women, Infants and Children nutrition subsidy programs for the poor combined (Waldman, 1992). An extensive and detailed analysis of data from the Congressional Budget Office by Howe and Longmann (1992) reveals numerous similar comparisons. The cost to the federal government of the home-mortgage tax deduction benefit was $37 billion in 1991, of which approximately $30 billion went directly to households with incomes over $50,000 a year. Meanwhile, all housing programs for the poor totaled about $7 billion. In 1991 over $55 billion in Social Security payments went to households with incomes over $50,000 a year. “For that much money the government could have provided every American with cradle-to-grave insurance against poverty–including the one American child in twenty who lived in a household reporting a cash income during 1991 of less than $5,000″ (Howe and Longmann, 1992:89).
Combining all forms of tax expenditures and direct outlays, Howe and Longman calculate that in 1991 the average government benefit to households with incomes below $10,000 was $5,690, while the average benefit to households with incomes over $100,000 was $9,280 (1992:93). Overall, one half (over $400 billion) of all entitlements went to households with incomes above $30,000, and one quarter (over $200 billion) went to households with incomes over $50,000 (1992:93). Clearly, more than enough public money is being sent to individuals to eliminate poverty, which the Children’s Defense Fund (1989) estimates would take about one percent of our gross national product, or $57 billion, based on 1987 figures.
Just as most of the money distributed to individuals by our government goes to the non-poor, most of the poor receive little or no assistance. “Just under half of families below the poverty line receive food stamps or AFDC, and only 36 percent get housing subsidies” (Waldman, 1992:57). “Quite simply, if the federal government wanted to flatten the nation’s income distribution, it would do better to mail all its checks to random addresses. The problem is that poverty programs don’t target the poor” (Howe and Longman, 1992:90).
During the 1980s virtually all government programs that benefited the poor were slashed, many by more than 50%, while Social Security and Medicare benefits, which primarily go to the non-poor, were increased. Howe and Longman point out that “From 1980 to 1991, in constant dollars, the average federal benefit received by households with incomes under $10,000 declined by seven percent…During those same eleven years, among households with incomes over $200,000 the real value of average benefits received…fully doubled” (1992:91-92). Waldman notes that “according to a U.S. Census Bureau study, the portion of the [government benefits] pie going to the poor has been shrinking in the past 25 years, while the slice going to the rest of the country has grown” (1992:57).
When housing policies are examined, it should be no surprise to recall that perhaps half a million American children are sleeping on the streets or in shelters this very night. Three-fourths of the federal housing budget for the poor was cut between 1981 and 1988. Many of the remaining funds were lost to speculators and crooks through the HUD and Savings & Loan scandals. Many low-income housing projects that became infested with crack gangs were simply allowed to deteriorate during the 1980s. (See Ifill, 1990; Morganthau, 1988. Budget figures are available in U.S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States, various years.)
More and more Americans simply have no place to go if they lose their current residence. Almost no new low-cost housing is being built privately or publicly. The number of federally subsidized units of low-income housing, for example, averaged 170,000 per year between 1976 and 1982. In 1988, only 23,000 units were built (Ifill, 1990:106). Meanwhile, old low-cost housing units are being lost to commercial development, public works, gentrification, and blight at the literal rate of millions per year. Others are being priced out of the low-income housing market. By 1990, more than half of all tenants were paying rent that exceeded the federal government’s definition of affordable housing (not more than 30 percent of household income). More than 25 percent of all renters paid more than half their income for rent. For decades, rent has risen substantially faster than renters’ incomes (Gilderbloom, 1991).
Of course, it is even more difficult to buy a home than to merely rent housing. The net result is that the demand for low-income housing (the number of families who cannot afford more than $250–in 1988 dollars–per month for housing) exceeded the national supply of low-income units in 1987. By 2003, the gap between supply and demand will reach ten million if recent trends continue (Morganthau, 1988; see also Eitzen and Baca Zinn, 1994:139). It is not simply a matter of the poor being “choosey” about accommodations; it is increasingly becoming a matter of having no choice.
So where have these attitudes and policies brought us? Inequality and deprivation flourish. The public vilifies the poor for being lazy leeches. Tax policies are disproportionately more burdensome to the poor. Government spending withers for the needy and becomes more generous to the affluent. Our society is virtually abandoning millions of poor children, relegating them to lives of stunted physical, intellectual, emotional, and moral development. A 1994 report by the Carnegie Corporation on the state of America’s children describes the situation as a “pattern of neglect” of our “most vulnerable” citizens (reported in Roberts, 1994). Our attitudes and policies have fostered the growth of a national disgrace and a human tragedy.
What can be done? Happily–yet sadly–the resources needed to save America’s poor–adults as well as children–are readily available, at an affordable cost. The price tag would amount to relatively small sacrifices of time and slight reductions in the consumption of unnecessary goods and services for the rest of us. Inaction in the face of the current situation invites moral censure on each of us individually. It also invites social self-destruction. Because of our selfish and short-sighted yearning for immediate materialistic self-indulgence, mainstream America is nurturing the growth of a sub-population within society that will have little or no ability or desire to participate in conventional social or economic life. The prospects for a productive economy in years to come are thereby reduced. The prospects for flourishing drug and crime problems are thereby increased.
Everyone’s quality of life will eventually be threatened by the current neglect of our impoverished children. Responding to a joint research report by the Labor and Commerce departments issued in June of 1994, U.S. Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich warns, “A society divided between the haves and the have-nots or the well-educated and the poorly educated cannot be a stable society over time.” The report itself concludes that “A healthy society cannot long continue along the path the U.S. is moving,” and that one consequence of these trends is “a large, growing population for whom illegal activity is more attractive than legitimate work” (reported in Manegold, 1994:A10).
“Doing nothing” is justified by some on the grounds that everyone simply has what she or he has earned. That conclusion, of course, fails morally and logically. Scriptures state clearly that the obligation to assist the poor remains intact whether or not the poor are judged to be “deserving.” And how can anyone reasonably view the growing millions of poor infants and children as undeserving of help, regardless of one’s opinion of their parents?
Moreover, empirical studies show that when the disadvantaged–children and adults alike–are given real opportunities to succeed, the vast majority work hard and take advantage of those opportunities. Many efforts have been found to be very successful in helping members of our society escape poverty (Schorr, 1988). Programs and opportunities can be provided publicly or privately. On the private side, for example, there is the case of Mr. Eugene Lang, who lowered the high school dropout rate in his old New York City neighborhood (which had become a rundown, poor area since he left) from over 50% to about 10% by promising to fund a college education for every law-abiding, successful high school graduate (Seligmann, 1990; Lapinski, 1986). The missing ingredient in the lives of Mr. Lang’s recipients was not a desire or willingness to work. It was hope. Most college students I meet have long taken for granted that college was an expectation or at least a realistic option for them. Are they–we–to be particularly admired for simply following the most reasonable path to socioeconomic success, while others “fail” because they see no realistic chance of even being allowed to step on that path?
Looking at public programs, there is no longer any reasonable dissent to the conclusion that comprehensive and well-run federal Head Start programs for poor pre-school children are a tremendous success. (And neither is there reasonable dissent to the conclusion that not all versions of Head Start are comprehensive and well-run.) Graduates of intensive Head Start programs do better in school, stay in school longer, and get in trouble less than their fellow disadvantaged non-Head Start classmates. Moreover, intensive Head Start is generally cost-effective, saving more in future unemployment, welfare, and criminal justice expenses than it costs to provide the program (Zigler and Muenchow, 1992; Schorr, 1988:192; Lee et al., 1990; Besharov, 1992; Berrueta-Clement et al., 1984). While there appears to be a need for follow-up programs to sustain the benefits of some versions of Head Start, results are so favorable that Head Start is one program that generally receives bipartisan praise in Congress. Still, funding in inadequate to cover more than two-thirds of all eligible children.
I have absolutely no particular political agenda in mind as I cite examples of programs aimed at reducing the ill effects of poverty. If true Christianity prevailed in our nation, there would be neither economic disadvantage nor the need for government programs to address it. All would be taken care of through private acts of sincere charity. But economic injustice and suffering persist, and something must be done. To me, the options for action include public as well as private efforts.
Unfortunately, there is a mind set among some members of the LDS subculture that if I do not completely rule out all public programs as possible means to deal with poverty and inequality, I must be an evil or misguided “socialist” whose moral ponderings–the real issue here–may therefore be dismissed offhandedly. This is not the place for a long discussion of the meaning of “socialism,” but I must admit that the notion that it is “socialism” and “of the devil” for citizens of a democratic nation to voluntarily address human needs through taxation and government programs strikes me as patently absurd. If that were so, perhaps we have the devil to thank for public libraries, highways, police and fire departments, and American aid to post-war Europe, to name a few. If we choose to irrationally recoil from the label “socialism,” we can simply refrain from using it, as we do with reference to Social Security and Medicare, for example. And if we believe that public funding of a basic “safety net” of minimal standards of decency in health, education, shelter, and opportunity are impossible to provide in a setting of political democracy and religious freedom, we can ignore the existence of most Western European nations.
Finally, if we believe that any curtailing or criticism of free-reign capitalism somehow violates the laws of heaven, we must discard numerous sermons of early LDS prophets (many conveniently collected by Nibley, 1989a, 1989b), significantly abridge or alter both the Doctrine and Covenants and the Book of Mormon, and reject outright such “radical” and “socialist” suggestions as the following:
But since all capitalistic systems are founded upon the institution of private property, inheritance and the profit motive, great inequalities of ownership and income inevitably result. …Among the more plausible suggestions offered to correct existing abuses without adversely affecting the productive system, is to continue the socialization of our service institutions through a system of progressive taxation based upon ability to pay…taking the bulk of their [captains of industry] profits to finance free education, free libraries, free public parks and recreation centers, unemployment insurance, old age benefits, sickness and accident insurance, and perhaps eventually free medical aid and hospital service. …The average family may not have much more money, if any, to spend under such a system than now. But…then the meager family income can be devoted entirely to the necessities of life, plus some of the comforts now enjoyed by the higher income classes. …To finance all of this, of course, will necessitate huge sums of money. …And it will also require a carefully worked out tax system so that every one will contribute according to his financial ability. Inheritance and estate taxes will become progressively higher, until the present system of permitting large fortunes to be passed on from generation to generation will become extinct. And incidentally, the so-called idle rich who have been living on the earnings of past generations will be no more (source to be identified below).
The above “plan” for equalizing living standards and life chances for Americans may or may not be politically or economically desirable or possible. Some economists, for example, tell me that providing such a social “safety net” of basic human rights (shelter, food, access to medical care, education) would not be an “efficient” system, that it would remove incentive for work and advancement. Their argument seems to be that the presence of suffering and deprivation is useful, because others will therefore try harder to avoid joining the sufferers. I resist accepting such a pessimistic and self-fulfilling view of humanity. Of course people will act selfishly if they are socialized in a system within which selfishness is routinely assumed and rewarded. I can, on the other hand, imagine good people acting in the best long-term interests of their community, even at immediate personal expense. I can also imagine a generous social safety net acting to increase rather than decrease entrepreneurial incentive and enterprise, by reducing the awful cost of failure that looms over prospective entrepreneurs in a “safety net-free” setting (namely, jeopardizing the health, education, and safety of one’s children).
But I digress. The point here is not to recommend any particular plan (including the one quoted above), and I am not doing so. The point is simply to note that even such a seemingly radical plan as the one cited above cannot be written off as un-Christian or anti-Mormon simply because it involves taxing and spending. It is perfectly consistent (as are countless other private and public approaches) with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Its source, it turns out, is the LDS Melchizedek Priesthood Study Guide for the year 1939, copyright by Heber J. Grant (Grant, 1938). I cite it only to reject the notion that the eternal principle of “free agency” somehow translates into an economic system of “free capitalism.” They are not the same. Such an equation strikes me as terribly ironic and potentially terribly tragic. Of course we can question the wisdom of specific government programs, or in general prefer private to public efforts. Those are not basic moral issues. But when the public nature of a program is used as an excuse to do nothing or to selfishly cling to one’s wealth while others suffer, wickedness has entered the picture.
I do not anticipate much repenting being called for as the result of our political party affiliations or specific policy preferences. However, I can easily imagine a hereafter in which most of the regretting, repenting, and pain experienced by contemporary middle- and upper-class “active” American Mormons is due to the sin of keeping too much for ourselves while so many others have so little. I believe it to be the great unrecognized sin of our LDS subculture (myself included), if not the chief cause of problems in our nation and throughout the world (compare Benson, 1989).
To be sure, some “hoarding” of personal resources seems necessary these days, primarily because of the very fact that our society chooses not to provide even a minimal safety net for many of its members who might happen to encounter difficult circumstances. My children or grandchildren may be denied important opportunities in the future (such as shelter, education, or health) if I am too generous with my resources today. I do not know how much are we justified in keeping to meet our present or future needs, or how much are we keeping unjustifiably to simply satisfy our wants. Unfortunately, we do not seem to have given any pat dollars-and-cents answers. “Keeping versus giving” is a wrenching moral and financial dilemma with which each of us must struggle continually and individually.
I would like to believe that my material living standard is not a moral issue, as long as I behave as a “good person” in other ways. It would be sublimely comfortable and convenient. But it is also wishful fantasy. The evidence is simply too clear that most or all the evil and suffering in our land can be traced to the hedonistic pursuit of material comforts and pleasure, and to the tremendous socioeconomic inequality that follows. Thanks primarily to glitzy and glamorous portrayals in American advertising and entertainment, selfish values are embraced throughout our socioeconomic hierarchy. No one group has a corner on the market of greed. Though the rich (them? us?) have greater opportunity to display their selfishness, the poor who long to win the lottery and live the opulent “American dream” lifestyle portrayed in the mass media have values no nobler than the “fat cats” they both condemn and envy.
On the other hand, it is not impossible for recipients of high incomes to live modest lifestyles and use the money truly to benefit others rather than indulge themselves. However, as the scriptures repeatedly remind us, a high income represents a temptation that very few can withstand. Moreover, the definition of “modest” can easily be stretched beyond all recognition. A major point from the parable of the widow’s mite seems to be that the Lord’s judgment over the use of money is based not on how much we give away, but on how much we keep for ourselves.
As a nation, we may not be in the most self-serving of times, and we may even be heading into a period of reduced selfishness. (Indeed, I sometimes sense–perhaps wishfully–a bit of a “de-greeding” in the 1990s compared to the 1980s.) Whatever the short-term direction may be, I hope we have not already reached the level of individualistic materialism that jeopardizes the very foundations of a democratic society. Republican democracy, after all, requires a certain degree of public wisdom and public virtue. America was built upon the pillar of self-restraint as well as the pillar of personal freedom, on a presumption of community responsibility as well as individual responsibility. Indeed, community responsibility is the heart and soul of everyone’s personal responsibility. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison warned that republican democracy could only survive in a society of relative equals in which the public good, not individual interests, remained the supreme objective (cited in Dennis, 1990:57 and in Bellah et al., 1985:30-31). Jefferson observed that if people forgot themselves “in the sole faculty of making money,” the future of the republic would become bleak ( in Bellah et al. 1985:31).
I do not mean to paint a hapless or hopeless portrait of America. There is much to be admired as well as questioned in our history and traditions. Still, we cannot deny the fact that most of our lifestyles are far from modest, especially by world standards. Even those of us who may feel comfortably unselfish within the context of American society must face the fact that all people everywhere are our sisters and brothers. And while our nation’s present and future may be significantly troubled by these matters, problems of poverty and inequality around the world make our national situation seem almost trivial by comparison. Of course, the typical American has limited political or logistical ability to ease the world’s suffering. Still, it is the global scene, not just the national one, that represents a more fitting context for speculating about “unprecedented evil” or the “signs of the last days.”
Whether or not we are witnessing signs of the earth’s final days, we are certainly witnessing global trends and events unprecedented in world history. Hundreds of millions of people have been freed in recent years from political oppression, from the “oppression” of Nature’s harshness, and from virtual isolation from the affluent and technologically advanced portions of the world. The materialistic “good life” exemplified by the American middle class, unknown to or beyond the wildest dreams of the majority of humankind for millennia, is rapidly becoming a global aspiration.
Could not the great and unprecedented evil that seems to be predicted for the last days refer to the dual evils of insatiable materialism and unspeakable inequality? While perhaps never enjoyable for its own sake, it is comparatively easy to “do without” economically under conditions of universal destitution, ignorance of alternatives, or political totalitarianism. Indeed, throughout history only a relative few have been afforded the “opportunity” to engage in selfish economic consumption and oppression. Now, for the first time ever, the test seems to be underway on a truly massive scale. There may even be more people alive today exercising substantial economic agency–facing real choices between personal luxury and Christian charity–than in all previous centuries combined. How will they handle their opportunity to engage in direct or indirect oppression, their choice to indulge or divulge? How are we handling ours?
It is no longer possible to believe or pretend that material acquisitiveness can be morally neutral. Never before has it been so clear that the earth’s capacity to sustain life is limited. Never before could we expect humankind to realize that a high standard of living must be purchased at the cost of depletion of finite resources and pollution of a fragile environment. While the earth can still sustain life for all of its current inhabitants at a healthy but simple living standard, it most probably cannot sustain life for all at the wasteful and destructive living standard of middle-class America (Durning, 1990). And even if it could for now, what about the extra billions that will be added in the next few decades?
The inescapable conclusion is that when one person lives a life of luxury in a nation or a world of limited and finite resources, others are forced to have less. Many, in fact, have so much less that they will lose all brightness of hope, suffer, and die, but only after watching their loved ones suffer and die. Increasingly, the dying–and the injustice–are becoming more difficult to ignore. Modern communications systems continue to shrink the world, bringing into greater light and clearer focus the awful juxtaposition of unprecedented abundance and unprecedented suffering.
The rich have run out of excuses. What happens when the poor run out of patience? Is literal global war a necessary part of our future? If so, it is reasonable to predict that it will involve an attack by “have-not” nations on the “haves” of the world, rather than a confrontation between superpower “haves” with differing political ideologies. After all, the have-nots would have nothing to lose in a global conflagration, by definition.
We must become more willing to sacrifice and share. Whether we do so out of obedience to God, out of genuine charity, out of earthly fear, or in view of long-term economic and political self-interest, the time has come to share or face the consequences. How long can we ignore the scriptural description of socioeconomic inequality as evil? How long will we be guided by the “traditions of our fathers” instead of the Savior of humanity? How long will LDS church members join mainstream America in not only condoning, but admiring and pursuing, worldly self-aggrandizement? Might not the great lesson for the last days be that in order for peace to prevail or for Zion “with no poor among them” to be established, that there must also be no rich among them?
Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 19:23)
But it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin. (D&C 49:20)
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