Empire in Decline: The Poorest of the Poor

Three months ago, in September 2011, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released a new study on income disparity and economic stability. While this may not seem like the kind of thing that I might be prone to discuss on a site that deals with Christian theology and culture, I would argue that the findings of this report are extremely significant for a Church that is seeking to bear witness to the realities and the justice of the Kingdom of God.

So let’s start by taking a look at the report.  According to the study, countries whose wealth was distributed more equitably between the poles of wealth and poverty tended to experience stronger and more consistent economic growth over a sustained period of time.   In other words, countries with a sizable and strong middle class tended to experience consistent economic growth that was accessible to broader portions of the population.

By contrast, in countries where there was a greater economic disparity between the wealthy citizens and the impoverished citizens, economies tended to experience more frequent recessions that lasted longer and plunged deeper.  So, in other words, countries with weak middle classes tended to experience greater economic instability, which in turn produced hardships for all levels of society.

So why should this concern us?  Because over the past 30 years, the income gap in the United States is growing at an alarming rate.  Thirty years ago, the wealthiest 1% of all Americans controlled just over 30% of the national wealth.  But today, that same group of people now controls 40% of the nation’s wealth.  So as the United States enters a period of time where its income gap is growing and its middle class is weakening, we, as Christians, need to ask some very serious questions regarding justice.  For in times of deep recession and economic hardship, it is not the wealthy that bear the weight of the burden.  The wealthy, by virtue of their economic power, tend to have the resources in reserve to sustain themselves in periods of hardship.  But the poorest of the poor, a group that we are called to defend as Christians, do not have the economic reserves to sustain themselves in these periods of instability.[1]

So the question is: how do we as American Christians defend the poor among us when the system that we live and breath within is currently being managed in such a way as to concentrate wealth within a miniscule segment of society?


[1] Interestingly enough, this same phenomenon appears to occur even within the United States itself.  According to the most recent 2010 census data, the 10 states with smallest average income gap had an average unemployment rate of 6%.  By comparison, the states with the highest average income gap experienced an unemployment rate of 8.9%, which is almost 50% higher than the states with lesser income gaps.

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7 Responses to Empire in Decline: The Poorest of the Poor

  1. Paul says:

    I think it’s very related to theology. “That which you do to the least of these, you do to me.”

    The income disparity is very troubling, and only getting worse.

    • Hey Paul. I completely agree. The best theology should address all facets of life, not simply personal piety. I just hadn’t delved into the world of politics on this site, so most people (if they missed my post on “Burning Down the Constitution”) probably weren’t prepared for that discussion. And as I am a registered independent that feels the freedom to agree with both major parties on various issues, I’m pretty sure I’ll be upsetting all sorts of people when I write on these topics.

      Thanks for chiming in. Did you have a good Christmas?

  2. Matt E says:

    Commie.

    Just kidding.

    I’m curious what you mean by “defend the poor.” I mean, I’m sure we all have somewhat of an idea of what it means, but I’d like to hear yours, Scott.

    • So here’s the deal, Matt. I don’t know what “defending the poor” would actually look like. I have some ideas, but I don’t have a fleshed out plan that is executable in three easy steps.

      Having said that, I think the first thing that needs to be done is to put the poor back on the radar. They don’t have access to power, and thus, they don’t have a strong voice in contemporary American politics. (Stay tuned for future post on Supreme Court ruling). So those that are charged with caring alongside the poor need to give them a voice. And that begins by simply remembering that many people don’t live in the middle-class luxury I experience. I have a small home that my wife and I own. We have two cars and three kids. And only one of us works. It’s time for us to recognize that what we call “middle class” is extreme wealth by the standards of Scripture and by the standards of much of the world’s population. Everyone is talking about the 1% as if the rest of us in the middle class aren’t wealthy beyond imagination. Never once in my life have I asked, “I wonder if I’ll eat tonight?” It’s always been, “What do I feel like having for dinner?” That is wealth, pure and simple.

      The second thing that I think needs to happen is an open questioning of how we have met the needs of the poor prior to this moment in time. The modern welfare state that began with FDR’s New Deal has been nothing short of catastrophic. We have stripped the poor of their dignity by offering them a system that makes it more profitable to glean off the system than it is to find honest work. And the left’s answer appears to be: “Offer them more welfare. That’ll make it better.” At the same time, most politicians on the right seem to have landed in a place where we simply accept that the “poor will always be among us,” as if that is some sort of excuse for no longer trying to find creative ways to reinvigorate regions that experience severe economic depravity. So it’s time for the right to let go of trite myths that not-so-subtly suggest that the poor simply aren’t trying hard enough. I’ve worked in international micro-finance, and I’ve seen what the poor can do when given loans to start a business. Their rate of repayment was over 98%, which would make almost every industrialized bank in the West green with envy.

      So start with remembering them. Put them back on the radar of public discourse. Then move on to open critique of how our current efforts (on both the left and the right) have failed them miserably. From there … I don’t know.

      What about you? Any thoughts?

      • Matt E says:

        Not really, I pretty much agree with everything you said. I feel like the issue is closely tied to that of education–yet another can of worms. 🙂

  3. fidelismama says:

    Scott,

    I thought that you might like to read this article.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/12/what-americans-keep-ignoring-about-finlands-school-success/250564/#.Tv4C0-e5a1Z.facebook

    There is no doubt that we have a responsibility to help the poor and that we are only as strong as our weakest link. The question is, “what is the best way to help?”

    Happy new year!

    Blessings,

    Jen

    • Great article, Jennifer. Thanks for sending the link.

      Out of curiosity, what did you think of his statement: “Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted?”

      Scott

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