Sermon 1/22/17 The Cost of Poverty
Fifty-three years ago Lyndon B. Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty,” and it was a war that desperately needed to be waged at the time. In the late 50’s, when we started to track such numbers, the poverty rate was at 22.4 percent. When LBJ took office it was at 19 percent, still a large percentage, and his State of the Union address to Congress, which I read from earlier, resulted in the passing of the Economic Opportunity Act, which established the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to administer the local application of federal funds targeted against poverty. This created programs like Job Corps, Head Start, Legal Assistance, and the Community Action Program. The Food Stamp Act was created in 1965, and remains a program that literally saves the lives of families every day. From the time the Economic Opportunity Act was passed the poverty rate steadily declined from 17.3 percent to a low of 11.1 percent in 1973, when it started to rise again after Richard Nixon abolished the Office of Economic Opportunity, though many of the programs were placed under other departments.
The rate climbed as high as 15.2 percent in 1983, when Ronald Reagan famously said, “We fought a war against poverty, and poverty won.” In 2000, after a spurt of prosperity, it went back down to 11.3 percent, and yet it is back up to over 15 percent now.
Still, we have done a lot that works. From Social Security to food stamps to the earned-income tax credit and on and on, we have enacted programs that now keep 50 million people out of poverty. Poverty would be nearly double what it is now without these measures, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. To say that “poverty won” is like saying the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts failed because there is still pollution.
But there’s no denying the problem persists and income inequality shapes our country and our world in myriad ways. Last week, Oxfam released its 2016 report on wealthy inequality and it said that the 8 richest people in the world, six of which are Americans, have a combined worth of 426 billion US dollars. By contrast, the combined fortunes of 3.6 billion of the world’s poorest inhabitants adds up to a measly $409 billion.
Oxfam Great Britain CEO Mark Goldring said, “This year’s snapshot of inequality is clearer, more accurate and more shocking than ever before,”
“It is beyond grotesque that a group of men who could easily fit in a single golf buggy own more than the poorest half of humanity.” I think that might be an understatement.
Oxfam also pointed to a link between the vast gap between rich and poor and growing discontent with mainstream politics around the world.
“From Brexit to the success of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, a worrying rise in racism and the widespread disillusionment with mainstream politics, there are increasing signs that more and more people in rich countries are no longer willing to tolerate the status quo,” it said in the report titled “An economy for the 99 per cent.”
To figure out just how we got here I had to look back. I read an op-ed in the NYT from 2012, titled ‘Poverty In America: Why Can’t We End It?’ by Peter Edelman, a law professor at Georgetown University. And when I read this article I understood clearly how Trump won the presidency. Edelman asks why, when we’ve accomplished so much, we have not achieved more in the war on poverty. He said, “An astonishing number of people work at low-wage jobs. Plus, many more households are headed now by a single parent, making it difficult for them to earn a living income from the jobs that are typically available. The near disappearance of cash assistance for low-income mothers and children — i.e., welfare — in much of the country plays a contributing role, too. And persistent issues of race and gender mean higher poverty among minorities and families headed by single mothers.
The first thing needed if we’re to get people out of poverty is more jobs that pay decent wages…This isn’t a problem specific to the current moment. We’ve been drowning in a flood of low-wage jobs for the last 40 years. Most of the income of people in poverty comes from work. According to the most recent data available from the Census Bureau, 104 million people — a third of the population — have annual incomes below twice the poverty line, less than $38,000 for a family of three. They struggle to make ends meet every month.”
He goes on to talk about how the demise of welfare created an awful gap for single mothers especially, how race and gender play an enormous part in determining poverty’s continuing course, the dismantling of unions and collective bargaining, and how deregulation and tax loopholes help the rich and powerful stay that way. And he says near the end of the article, and don’t forget this is 2012, “We should not kid ourselves. It isn’t certain that things will stay as good as they are now. The wealth and income of the top 1 percent grows at the expense of everyone else. Money breeds power and power breeds more money. It is a truly vicious circle.
A surefire politics of change would necessarily involve getting people in the middle — from the 30th to the 70th percentile — to see their own economic self-interest. If they vote in their own self-interest, they’ll elect people who are likely to be more aligned with people with lower incomes as well as with them. As long as people in the middle identify more with people on the top than with those on the bottom, we are doomed.”
Now, it might on the face seem like the people who depend on assistance programs would do much better voting for the liberals who want to fund them, and that Trump’s ideas are the exact opposite of that. But think for a moment how Trump’s campaign played to exactly what Edelman is talking about even if the facts don’t support the rhetoric. We Americans are often like magpies, happily distracted by shiny things, and it didn’t seem to matter what Trump did outside the realm of the civility we come to expect from people who hold positions of authority in our country, as long as he persistently played to the self-interests of a large swath of Americans, and just kept repeating JOBS JOBS JOBS and how awful everything is and how great it could be, he would win that percentile he needed.
Because, as we have learned over and over, people who are frustrated don’t just want hope. As someone who often counsels people in need, and as someone who is going through a difficult time myself, I know that all the “Hang in there!” kitten posters, all the reassurance that “You’re tough, you can get through this,” and “there’s light at the end of the tunnel” don’t go nearly as far when you’re really hurting as having someone just listen and validate your viewpoint. You don’t want to hear, “It will all be OK,” you want someone to say, “Well that totally sucks! You must be out of your mind right now. You wanna go, like, break some glass, get a beer, or scream into the ocean?”
Trump’s campaign allowed a large swath of people who were very frustrated with government to metaphorically break some glass, get a beer, and shout into the ocean. He validated their frustrations, he told them exactly what they wanted to hear. But I wonder now how, after promising to drain the swamp, and convincing some people he was just a regular guy, he will get away with filling important positions in his cabinet with the swampiest millionaires and billionaires he could find. Let me repeat that quote from Edelman, “As long as people in the middle identify more with people on the top than with those on the bottom, we are doomed.” Public opinion is a fickle mistress, so we’ll just have to see. But I digress.
Well, not really…this actually leads me right back to income inequality, and poverty. I sure hope we see more jobs, but more low-wage jobs aren’t going to help the lower or middle classes. Low wages benefit the rich. You wanna make a deal? How about making a deal that includes everyone who works full time should be able to afford to live on their wages. Now that’s a deal I’d like to see.
Because, let’s think about this, church… what is the cost of poverty? How many of the issues that we argue about, and pour trillions of dollars into, might be alleviated if the vicious circle of poverty was broken and gross economic inequality became a thing of the past? What kind of country would we be, what kind of world, if everyone’s inalienable rights included enough to eat, a roof over their heads, a living wage for their labors, free health care, and a good education? Let’s not think about how much that would cost, let’s thjnk about how much money we could save. Poverty creates some of our society’s worst, most expensive problems: hunger, crime, violence, homelessness, mental and physical illnesses. How much money do you think we’d save by making sure everyone had an opportunity to succeed?
And how about the immigration problem…has it never crossed anyone’s mind that people who have jobs, safety, and opportunities in their own countries would rather stay there? Forget about building a wall, build a better economy in Mexico, help their people fight corruption and drug cartels, so they can be happy right where they live.
How much revenue could be generated from a strong workforce, not to mention closing those tax loopholes for the rich, shaped like the eye of a needle…you know, the one it’s easier to put a camel through than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Now, this might all sound like liberal, idealist claptrap, and granted, I watch too much Star Trek to not believe there can someday be a world where everyone has what they need.
But I also remember asking my dad when I was probably 11 or 12, before I understood anything about liberal and conservative and only knew what was right and wrong, why it was so unfair…why so many people suffered while a few prospered ostentatiously. Why, when our country is so rich, we have so many who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. And my pragmatic father, I will never forget, said, “baby, no one ever said life was fair.”
And OK, I get that. There’s nothing fair about it quite a lot of the time. But, if you have a sense of right and wrong, of what’s fair and unfair, and if justice and equality matters to you, the fact that life isn’t fair should make you strive all the more for fairness. No one ever said it was going to be easy, either. Another of my father’s favorite things to say was, “It’s only a sin if you know better.” To me that means the sin is in doing nothing, in accepting injustice and poverty and violence. Because we do know what would make our world better, and it is pretty simple, it just happens to cost the rich a lot of money, and they’ve got the power. It’s the same in every country, even if some governments are more democratic and magnanimous toward the welfare of their people than others. Keeping people poor equals keeping people powerless. Those at the top keep climbing and most of us are lucky to get our hands on the ladder at all. This has to change. I can’t see it happening under the current administration, but God knows I hope I’m wrong.
As Unitarians, we draw from many sources for our wisdom, and justice and fairness for all is certainly a theme that runs through Thoreau and Emerson as much as the teachings of Jesus. And as Unitarians, we will fight, with Thoreau’s ideas about preserving our environment and Civil Disobedience, and, like Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers and caring for the outcast, sick, and poor. The only sin we know is in doing nothing when something must be done. Resistance is NOT futile, and I’d rather be poor in my pocketbook than poor in spirit. May we all find the richness of spirit to stand on the side of love. Amen and SMIB