Shrinking the Gap

A report released in May of 2011 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that the gap between the rich and poor in O.E.C.D. countries has reached its highest level in over 30 years. Here is my response about how to shrink that gap in the United States.

What’s your perspective?

Somebody asked Bono the difference between an American and an Irishman. He replied,

When an American sees a mansion on a hilltop overlooking the city, he thinks, “Wow, that guy made it and is living the good life.” The Irishman thinks, “Rich bastard!”

What do you think when you are panhandled in the city?

  • Poor dude! I can give him a few dollars for his next meal.
  • This jerk is preying upon people’s good-heartedness and guilt. He needs to get a job and stop panhandling and collecting government handouts.
  • The last thing this alcoholic or drug addict needs is money for a fix.

Some folks feel well off when they can afford their kid’s college education, remodel their home, and keep a couple of late model SUV’s parked in the driveway, while socking money away for retirement. Others are happy to be surviving and meeting their monthly obligations.

The point is that our response to poverty and wealth comes from deeply rooted attitudes based upon our experiences, background, and the type of information that we consume. If the economic system is working for you, you want to protect your wealth. If is is not, you want change, maybe, revolution.

Let’s try to move past that subjectivity and break the topic into some bite-sized pieces by asking some rather basic questions.

Is it okay to be wealthy?

Given the current social/political climate in America, the answer is, “No”. Our government has hit its financial tipping point and it is politically expedient to find someone to blame (other than the people in charge).

Several years ago, states saw the opportunity for a quick influx of revenue and touted legalized gambling as an opportunity to rake in revenue. So, riverboats and casinos were licensed all over the land. It still seems bizarre to me for government to be involved in gambling, but it was the quick fix, “the answer” at the time.

Now, “the answer” is to tax the rich, because in these hard times we are becoming more like the Irish, blaming those “rich bastards” for our troubles. By most accounts, such proposals would do little toward reducing our national debt and nothing to help the employment situation. However, such a proposal is far easier than doing what really needs to be done; i.e., reforming the tax code to make it more equitable by eliminating loop holes and a catalog of incentives, applying the same tax rate to all earnings, while leaving a safety net for the truly poor, and finding ways to reduce healthcare costs. This would raise rates on capital gains, but doing it as part of comprehensive tax reform is much better than pitting citizens against each other with the “raise taxes on the rich” rhetoric.

Freedom and free enterprise makes it possible for some people to do very well and it seems totally reasonable. I am not willing to give up on this basic American foundational principle.

Should the rich and those who have enough, help the poor?

Common sense, scripture, and Jesus, himself all agree on the answer to this question. Of course, they should. Churches and individual Christians should be leading the way, but unfortunately, they are caught up in the ways of materialism just like everybody else in this country.

If neighbors helped neighbors and church members helped church members and churches helped the poor in their communities, it would be a different world and poverty would be much less of an issue.

Should the wealthy and the middle class be made to help the poor?

I remember hearing conservative Bible teacher, Steve Brown and his friend, liberal activist, Tony Campollo going at it on Steve’s radio program. Finally, Steve said, “Tony, we agree on the problems, but we disagree on the role of government in trying to solve them.”

It is almost always a bad idea when you try to force something on someone. We should have enough compassion to help the poor on our own, but usually, we don’t. Again, the church should be leading the way, but it isn’t. Because of our unwillingness or inability to help the poor among us on a relational basis, the issue has become one the government must address.

Human beings have a responsibility for other human beings, especially those, who for various reasons, are disadvantaged.

What is the best way to help poor people?

Here question begets question.

  • Would a person rather receive an unemployment check for a mere portion of his previous salary or have employment that is suited to his abilities and interests that pays a living wage?
  • Would a person rather go to a food pantry where he receives donated and outdated products over which he has little or no choice, or would he rather be able to purchase his groceries like other people, knowing that he had a role in providing for his family?
  • Would a person rather be a client at an agency waiting in line and filling out forms, so that he can become a part of a programmed hand-out, or would he rather assume responsibility for his own needs and have a resource person to partner with him in dealing with his issues and fulfilling his own goals?

The client/provider social service paradigm forces a weird symbiotic relationship that depends upon the client being in need and the provider providing resources for the agency to be funded. Many agencies receive funding based upon the number of clients served. Their real effectiveness is never evaluated, i.e., helping clients move toward self-sufficiency.  Perhaps, that is not even one of their goals. Actually, if they were effective, their client load would be decreasing.

Generally, giving someone something is the worst possible way to help them, unless they are simply unable to provide for their own needs, or it is an acute emergency, or the person or family needs some short term help during a transition period.

In the current system, the client develops a dependent relationship with the service provider, rather than acquiring the skills and confidence that he needs to tackle his own circumstances.

With decreasing funds and increasing client loads, these social service models are no longer sustainable. There are creative new approaches being developed and tested, ones that respect human dignity and are more sustainable. However, there is a lot of resistance from those vested in the old way of doing things.

My friend, Kevin Shinn, asked one of his young employees what he thought democrats and republicans each believed in a nutshell. He replied, “I think democrats want to help people and republicans want to make things better so that people can help themselves.”

Whether you agree with that assessment or not, you must surely agree that it is labor intensive to help the chronically poor who are taken advantage of by predatory lenders, who may not have a bank account, who don’t know how to write a resume, who have not had the advantage of being taught a good work ethic or money management skills, who do not have their own transportation, who can’t afford child care, who have little relational capital, who don’t have a good work history, and who don’t have marketable skills. It is easier to cut a check or make some half-hearted, fragmented, programmed effort than to help them with the whole spectrum of issues.

The way things are going, at least, in the US, the widening gap between rich and poor is not only harmful, it is inevitable and it will cause increasing social unrest.

What needs to happen next?

Huge sustained economic growth like we experienced in the eighties and nineties is unlikely. The US is, in many ways, a saturated market. If companies court the massive Asian market with the kind of disregard for the environment that was characteristic of us a few years ago and is happening in the developing world today, it is simply much too great of a cost for “prosperity.”

The tax code needs to be completely re-written, simplified, and made more equitable. Why on earth should an average citizen need to hire an accounting professional or use specialized software to determine his tax bill?

Our nation needs to once again become an inviting place for business, so that businesses are not overburdened with unnecessary regulations and healthcare costs.

We need a multilevel effort to train people quickly and cheaply for actual jobs. There is a lot of talk about job training, but it doesn’t seem to be working very well. A college education is ridiculously expensive and too much of the curriculum is some educator’s idea of the breadth of knowledge one should be exposed to, rather than something that will serve the student well in his vocation and life.

The current massive wave of age discrimination must stop. The new face of the unemployed is a 50-something, highly skilled, long-term employee whose job was off shored. Nobody wants to hire him because he reasonably expects decent pay, the opportunity to use his skills and experience, and will likely develop some health issues. If he happens to be unemployed for a long period of time, he is nearly untouchable and is totally written off. Instead, companies hire someone young and new to the market and likely half the employee of his more experienced counterpart.

There needs to be a real safety net for people who really need it. We need to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves. We need to get serious helping people get employed. We need to give a break to the working poor who are trying, but hardly surviving.

Social service needs a major overall. The current system is piecemeal, poorly coordinated, and way too difficult to navigate. People need to be treated with dignity as individuals. Programs need to serve them and not the other way around. There needs to be regional coordination and a clearinghouse for services.

If you think these things will never happen given our toxic paralytic political atmosphere, there are some things we can do right now with no government involvement whatsoever. We can begin thinking about creative, sustainable ways to help people, that treat them with dignity. And we can care about our neighbors, our congregants, and our community in tangible ways when we see someone who needs some help.


Originally posted February 1, 2012.

This post is part of a synchroblog on extreme economic poverty. Here are the other participants in the synchroblog:

Marta Layton – Fear Leads to Anger. Anger Leads to hate …

Kathy Escobar – Pawn Shops, Empty Refrigerators, The Long Hill Up

Carol Kuniholm – Wondering About Wealth

Jeremy Myers – Wealth Distribution

Liz Dyer – The First Step Is Admitting There Is A Problem

Ellen Haroutunian – Economic Inequality: Coming Back To Our Senses 

K.W. Leslie – Wealth, Christians, and Justice

Abbie Watters – My Confession

Steve Hayes – Obscenity

About Glenn

Glenn Hager is a blogger, former newspaper columnist, and author of two books, An Irreligious Faith and Free Range Faith.
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