In this week's Common Good Forum, senior fellow Christopher Hale examines the way forward in addressing inequality and poverty in the United States. He encourages both parties to drop the ideological rhetoric and to adopt real solutions to addressing one of our nation's most crucial epidemics.
One of the central paradigms of Catholic thought is best communicated in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s 1943 classic The Little Prince. A children’s book, the whole story can be summed up in the words of the fox to the little prince: “One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” This truth clearly forms our belief in the Eucharist: that God’s full reality in Christ is made manifest under the appearances of simple bread and wine. But it also communicates the way we look at the entire world and the ideas and structures that form it.
It is this paradigm that causes the Catholic Church in the United States such great concern about the growing income inequality that is plaguing our country. On first impressions, things look fine—perhaps even great. For the past four years, there has been steady economic growth, and corporate profits and stock prices that are bordering on all-time highs. But as President Obama said last night, there is an undercurrent to this growth that isn’t as positive: average wages have remained stagnant and inequality has deepened.
The simple fact is this: The economic recovery isn’t happening for a large number of Americans. A new study from Washington University in St. Louis shows this inequality is one the main hindrances to a full-throated economic recovery. A true recovery is a recovery for all sectors of society—for everyone—but we’re not there yet.
The 2008 economic collapse and the subsequent attempts to recover have revealed that solving poverty and inequality is now a paramount issue for the United States. Over 46 million Americans live in poverty and nearly 100 million are on the verge of poverty. That’s nearly a third of the country. It’s unconscionable that in the richest country on Earth this many of us are living paycheck to paycheck.
Facing this reality, Pope Francis’s words should ring in our ears: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” To their credit, our leaders in Washington have gotten the message and are finally taking this problem seriously.
In early December, President Obama made it clear that tackling inequality would be a defining agenda item for his final three years in office. As a first step, he proposed raising the federal minimum wage to better match the cost of living in the United States. Last night, he said it well: “Americans overwhelmingly agree that no one who works full time should have to raise a family in poverty.”
Republicans have criticized the President for focusing too much on income inequality and not enough on what they call the “opportunity inequality.” In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Representative Paul Ryan highlights this idea. He decries Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty as a failed experiment. The best way to end inequality, he says, is for state and local governments to guarantee equal access to quality education and community resources. He believes that federal government programs that are intended to assist the poor are in fact hurting the poor by discouraging social and economic mobility. And with Representative Cathy McMorris-Rodgers’s thoughtful Republican response last night, it’s now clear that this new take on George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” will be the Republican brand for 2014.
But this approach is not without flaws. It presupposes the possibility of economic mobility, but as Harvard University researchers confirmed last week, economic mobility isn’t a given in the United States. Though political rhetoric magnifies the idea of intergenerational mobility, Harvard found that it’s as hard as ever to be better off than your parents were.
This troubling reality makes me wonder if former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was correct: “the only difference between compassionate conservatism and conservatism is that under compassionate conservatism they tell you they’re not going to help you but they're really sorry about it.”
It’s disturbing that some conservatives are so ideologically hung up on the irrational belief that government is bad that they refuse to support programs that have been proven time and again to help people who are struggling.
The best recent example is long-term unemployment benefits. On December 28th, these benefits expired for 1.3 million Americans. This is an unacceptable situation that was made possible by the deficit reduction bill constructed by a bipartisan agreement. It was especially distressing that these cuts were enacted during the Christmas season.
The Catholic Church in the United States has made it clear: the budget should never be balanced on the backs of the poor. Keeping this in mind, our organization asked the United States Congress to immediately support an extension of the unemployment benefits.
Compassionate conservatism can never become an excuse to practice benign neglect. Economists agree that while many things are right with our economy, there are a lot of fundamentals that aren’t. To address its most fundamental flaw—inequality and poverty—we must use all the available resources of both government and civil society. Pretending that every government program addressing inequality is bad might be a good campaign strategy, but it’s just not true. Pretending that every government program addressing inequality is good might also be good campaign strategy, but it’s just not true.
Pragmatic solutions—not ideology—must be the way forward on this crucial issue. Though government can’t solve all our problems, it can play a crucial role. The Catholic Church is clear: The main purpose of any government is to serve its nation’s most vulnerable people. The question we should ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works, whether it helps people find jobs with decent pay, healthcare they can afford and a retirement that is dignified.
Pope Francis recently said he “beg[s] the Lord gives us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people and the lives of the poor.” I sincerely think we have them in the United States, but now it’s time to get to work. Now is the time to address the structural problems that plague our economy and increase the slow, quiet violence of poverty that threatens our nation’s moral fiber. If we do this well, we can make of our blessed, but at times broken, nation something all the more blessed still.