BY JIM WALLIS
When it comes to poverty in America, things aren’t looking good. After making progress in domestic and childhood poverty in the 1990′s, we are headed in the wrong direction and the recession made it worse.
So let’s talk about the issue of religion and the upcoming election. The census data on poverty should be the number one religious issue for the 2012 presidential election. While there is no religious test for office in this country, if a candidate campaigns on his or her faith, they should be held accountable. Jesus was clear to his followers that his concern was for the poor and the vulnerable. The God of the Bible is a God of justice; and the Bible talks about the poor more than any of the other concerns that the media and some candidates regard as “religious issues.” If a candidate for president claims to follow Jesus, then their concern should be for the poor. If they profess faith in God, they should faithfully observe God’s concern for the oppressed. It’s up to voters to evaluate how the candidates respond to the recently released Census numbers, and it’s up to the media to hold leaders accountable to their professed beliefs. We know what campaign bundlers, special interests, and big business are watching for in this election; and it is not the poor. Regardless of religious identity, Christian candidates, Jewish candidates, Muslim candidates, and Mormon candidates should be watching out for the poor.
There is a hot phrase right now in Washington, D.C., and that is “class warfare.” Well, let’s be clear: There really is a class war going on, and the upper class is winning.
As former President Bill Clinton also pointed out, 90 percent of income gains in the last decade went to the top 10 percent, and 40 percent of the increased wealth went to the top 1 percent. The middle class has lost ground in the same period. And we can now say that the only growth in this economy seems to be the skyrocketing poverty figures that the Census Bureau released last week. Almost 50 million Americans are now in poverty —the highest rate in 50 years, including 22 percent of all our children —in this the richest country in the world. Let’s put it another way: The only people doing well in this economy are the people at the very top, some of whose selfish behavior caused this recession in the first place. They’re the ones who have “recovered” from the crisis they helped create. The rest of us are still trying to recover. That’s a war being waged by Wall Street against Main Street. And Wall Street is winning that war. But when anybody talks about fairness or equity or morality in economics, or when anyone even begins to challenge the greatest inequality since the 1920s, they are quickly accused of engaging in “class warfare.”
So why is it that when the top 1 percent of the country controls 42 percent of the nation’s financial wealth —more than 90 percent of the rest of us —and the ratio of CEO pay to average workers salaries is 400 to 1, it is NOT class warfare? Yet simply calling for a return of the highest-end tax rates to the 1990s levels IS?
“Class warfare might make for good politics, but it makes for rotten economics,” Rep. Paul Ryan said on “Fox News Sunday” a few weeks ago. But, according to a new report by the International Monetary Fund, Ryan is just wrong.
The IMF report says the widening income gap is bad for economic recovery. Growing income inequality actually hinders economic growth, and reducing economic inequality actually helps spur the economy, the report found.
The IMF study concluded that a 10 percent decrease in inequality actually increased the expected economic growth by 50 percent. “Sustainable economic reform,” the authors write, “is possible only when its benefits are widely shared.”
So the call for economic fairness —what Paul Ryan decries as “class warfare” —may not be “rotten economics” at all but, in fact, rather good economics, as well as good morality.
Maybe God has a point.
A commentator on ethics, religion and public life, Jim Wallis is founder and editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine.