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.