Evidence of continuing income inequality

A response to the Census Bureau’s poverty data

September 13, 2012


On Sept. 12, the U.S. Census Bureau released Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2011, the annual report sometimes referred to as the “poverty data.”

In this report, we learn that median household income declined by 1.5 percent, and that poverty in the U.S. remains statistically unchanged between 2010 and 2011, at a still unacceptably high at 15 percent. Child poverty also remains unchanged, but to our shame, more than one in five children under the age of 18 continue to live in poverty.

Most startling, however, is evidence showing that the gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen. According to the Census Bureau’s data, while the second, middle, and fourth quintiles of the income scale lost between 1.6 and 1.9 percent of its share of the income growth, the top five percent of earners saw its share of income growth increase by 5.3 percent.

In a time of growing inequality and injustice in the workforce, these numbers are very troubling.

As we reflect on the evidence of injustice before our eyes, we are reminded of a God that draws in those facing persecution, those who are marginalized, and those who are oppressed simply because of their demographic or racial identity.

This same God empowers us with a call to public witness. The overwhelming proclamation of Isaiah 61 is that God has called us to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

As Presbyterians, as Christians, we must be aware of our context in which we are proclaiming God’s advancing reign on earth.

We are living in a highly privileged United States of America where an overwhelming percentage of our population ironically has no access to that sense of privilege. As our nation grows in GDP, the gap between the rich and poor also continues to inflate.

The recovery from the Great Recession, while sluggish and tepid, also fails to distribute its modest gains across all segments of the economy, but rather benefits those who already have much, while neglecting those who have too little. Those living at or below the poverty line remain there, while those whose tithes alone amount to greater than the poverty line have ever increasing incomes.

This new data shows that in 2011, 46.2 million people were living in poverty, 15 percent of our population ― almost exactly the same as the year before. Likewise, 21.9 percent of children are living in poverty, also unchanged from the previous year. While we rejoice that the rate of growth seems to have been halted this year, the number of people living in poverty has steadily increased since 2007. This leaves too many people living in poverty in the wealthiest nation in the world.

Recent research into the causes of rising poverty reflects declines in Unemployment Insurance (UI) and a significant reduction in public sector jobs. The expiration of the Recovery Act of 2009, coupled with exhausted UI benefits for long-time job seekers, are wind in the sails of systemic poverty, even as we know that the root causes of poverty include systemic racism, sexism, individualism, and greed.

And yet in the short term, the census data shows that an effective and targeted safety net can reduce hardship. The Census Bureau data shows that without Unemployment Insurance, 2.3 million more people would have fallen below the poverty line.

And new research, based on an updated and more comprehensive poverty measure, shows that SNAP (formerly Food Stamps) is so valuable, that 3.9 million people would not be considered poor if the benefit’s value were included in income measures. Likewise, the Earned Income Tax Credit provides the same support to 5.7 million people.

As Christians, we are called to respond to the tragedy of economic injustice, in which we are complicit. We cannot sit idly as poor people remain oppressed by systemic poverty and injustice. Children across the nation are living in poverty, without access to health coverage, in need of our soup kitchens and homeless shelters, and receiving SNAP, TANF, and other safety net benefits.

While these programs, both private and public, exist for the common good, they are meant to be a safety net, not a long-term solution to growing and persistent inequality and injustice. The new  poverty data shows just how much work we have yet to do.

Poverty is a pernicious disease that infects the very fabric of our nation. We must attack it at its root, transforming the system that traps people in cycles of generational poverty, and ensure that every person has access to the opportunities of health and wholeness that God wishes for us all.

With a spirit of prayerfulness and mindfulness, we prepare our hearts for the ways in which God is calling all of us to respond to this situation.

  1. If it weren't for SNAP my family would have not had any food. If it weren't for my faith in God, 4 years ago when my husband lost his job and DID NOT get unemployment benefits, we would have surely perished. I cried daily, I stressed over what bill to pay with the little bit of money I had earned working as my church's secretary (a job I have proudly held for 12+ years). My family had so many doors shut in our faces and so few opened. If we didn't get government assistance we would have ended up homeless. By God & Government we survived! Now that my husband is employed again we are slowly rebuilding our lives and we can not do it without God and we surely cannot forget the help we received from our federal government along the way!

    by Lizz

    September 18, 2012

  2. If we "attacked poverty at its roots," as Mr Nelson asks, we would first start with an all-out campaign in favor of marriage and against single parent births. The evidence isn't just compelling. It's overwhelming. My guess is that would not be his first choice, though, given his language choice: "..systemic racism, sexism, oppression.." I think what he has in mind is to use the power of the state to take from some and redistribute to others far beyond current US laws and policies. Which does more to create long-term dependencies than get at the real roots of poverty.

    by Tome Walters

    September 14, 2012

  3. Does it bother Mr. Nelson or anyone in the Washington Office that the war on poverty is now 50 years old and fellows like him are still advocating that continuing and improving government programs are the solution to the problem we have with safety nets that have become baskets that carry people. No Christian would condone any program that encouraged any individual, in any way, to be subservient to anything - especially the government. No Christian could look at any action by any government that has failed the individual for that same 50 years and believe it will somehow do otherwise in the future and that "systemic problems" will be solved by more "systemic" solutions.

    by Rich Cooper

    September 14, 2012

  4. Has it ever occurred to you that some people are far more productive than other people? And therefore deserve to keep a good portion of the wealth that they create? And that while we all have an obligation to help the poor on a voluntary basis, the existence of the rich, or very rich, is not evidence that the rich have more than their share? Or that somehow taking what belongs to the rich to give to the poor in the long run just decreases the motivation to work hard and create wealth - since it will only be taken from you, and you’ll be insulted in the bargain? Or that the best way to improve the lot of the poor is to encourage the creation of wealth by the wealth creators and thereby make everyone better off? All this occurred to me after about a week in Eco. 101. Wealth is not a pile of gold that can only be spread around differently. Like energy and matter, it is constantly being created and destroyed - or in economic terms, saved or spent. Over the long run the poor are helped not by redistribution but by economic growth and development which happens because of economic freedom and property rights.

    by Whit Brisky

    September 14, 2012

  5. Real economic growth would produce jobs to reduce poverty. Giving people food stamps and unemployment insurance just perpetuates poverty because it does not create any wealth and is unsustainable.

    by Jeff

    September 13, 2012