Let the good times roll! President Bill Clinton was absolutely beaming as he reported the U.S. Census Bureau's annual poverty statistics. "We have proved that we can lift all boats," Clinton proclaimed with presidential emphasis and authority. Well, not so fast, Bill. The big yachts are still doing a whole lot better than the little rowboats.
There was some good news in the 1999 report. The total number of people in poverty did indeed drop, from 34.2 to 32.3 million people. And the number of children in poverty dropped from 13.5 to 12.1 million. The poverty rate declined for every racial and ethnic group, and the rate for African Americans was the lowest ever. Clearly, that's a step in the right direction.
But all Americans did not share in the unprecedented prosperity of the 1990s. The 1999 Census report is one of the first signs of wider benefit. The booming economy is certainly a cause of the improvements, as is an increase in the minimum wage and the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit. The increased efforts of churches and faith-based programs to overcome poverty are certainly a part of this story, too.
But here's the rest of the story. The poverty rate for black Americans continues to be three times higher than the rate for "non-Hispanic whites" (23.6 percent to 7.7 percent). Thus, race remains intimately connected to poverty in America. Female-headed households are the majority of poor families (53 percent), and fully half of children under the age of 6 in fatherless homes live in poverty (compared to a 9 percent poverty rate for married-couple households). Therefore, family life and structure is a major factor in poverty rates, and children living in healthy two-parent families is still one of our best anti-poverty programs.
The Census report pointed out that the average family income in America is now more than $40,000. But as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich said at this summer's Shadow Convention in Philadelphia, "Watch out for talk about 'averages.' When they use that word, hang on to your wallet." The under-5-foot Reich said, "Remember, the 'average' height of me and Shaquille O'Neal is 6 feet!" Those dot.com salaries are bringing up the averages, but this prosperity has left lots of families making far less than $40,000 per year.
The Census report shows that inequality remains virtually unchanged. Last year, the top 20 percent of households received almost half of all income (49.4 percent), while the bottom 20 percent received 3.6 percent. Every economic indicator shows that the rich are, in fact, getting richer every day. During the decade of the 1990s, CEO pay jumped 535 percent-while the average worker pay increased only 32 percent. If the minimum wage had risen as fast as CEO pay, it would now be $24.13 per hour instead of $5.15!
During one of the most prosperous times in the richest nation in the world, one in five American children have remained poor, with one in three children of color living in poverty. In the new Census data, one in six kids are still poor. That may be better than last year, but it's worse than where we were in the 1970s. More significant, American child poverty rates (and overall poverty rates) are still far higher-massively higher-than poverty rates in any other developed country in the world. In Germany one in 20 children are poor, in Sweden and Belgium one in 40, and in Britain one in 11. So why is the president so happy, and how do we keep justifying such persistent poverty in the midst of prosperity?
To their credit Al Gore and George W. Bush spoke to the issue in their convention speeches. Bush said, "Times of plenty, like times of crisis, are tests of American character. Prosperity can be a tool in our hands used to build and better our country, or it can be a drug in our system dulling our sense of urgency, of empathy, of duty." The Republican nominee went on to make a very concrete promise. "We will extend the promise of prosperity to every forgotten corner of this country: to every man and woman, a chance to succeed; to every child, a chance to learn; and to every family, a chance to live with dignity and hope."
Two weeks later Gore said, "For all our good times, I am not satisfied." An unusual statement from a politician-people who usually seem very satisfied with prosperity and eager to take credit for it. "Together," Gore promised, "let's make sure that our prosperity enriches not just the few, but all working families." His focus, Gore claimed, would indeed be on "working families." The Democratic nominee said to them, "So often, powerful forces and powerful interests stand in your way, and the odds seem stacked against you-even as you do what's right for you and your family."
But immediately the Republicans and some media pundits charged the Democrats with engaging in "class warfare." A Bush spokesperson accused Gore of "injecting class warfare rhetoric that divides Americans instead of bringing them together." David Gergen said, "This business about being for working class families against everybody else-especially against the powerful-is divisive." Others attacked Gore for "pitting the rich against the poor."
I'm curious why, a month later, Forbes magazine's annual ratings of the country's wealthiest people was widely reported in the media-with no such comments from these people. The Washington Post business section said the list offers clear "evidence that the richest Americans keep getting richer." Why are the great and growing gaps between the top of the society and all the rest of us not "divisive," while any overt focus on poor families is evidence of "class warfare"? Could it be that one side keeps winning this "war" and, as always, the winners get to define the terms of the battle? Why is talking about the poor regarded as class war, while talking about the rich is just good business and celebrity excitement?
Well, it's not. At least, the Bible doesn't say so. "I know that the Lord maintains the cause of the needy, and executes justice for the poor," says the psalmist. "Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him," Proverbs says. Proverbs also says, "The righteous know the rights of the poor, the wicked have no such understanding." The Democratic convention said nothing so strong as that.
But church leaders are saying it, and they don't think they are engaging in class warfare at all. At the Call to Renewal Roundtable on Poverty, held September 20, 55 leaders from 50 national churches and faith-based organizations lifted up poverty as a moral focus for this election and called for concrete measures and goals. The Roundtable called upon both presidential candidates to make a concrete promise of leadership on the issue of child poverty. We asked each one to promise to use the "bully pulpit" of the presidency to call upon the nation to cut child poverty by half in five years.
We are certainly not asking nor expecting the government to do this by itself, but to call all of us to this great task. If a president can promise to put someone on the moon, one could certainly decide to give this prosperity a purpose by concentrating the nation's attention and energy on our most vulnerable children. Every sector of society will have a part to play-business, labor, civil society, and certainly the churches. The church leaders promised to step up and take a leadership role as a president does the right thing in a time of prosperity.
The politicians need to learn something. To focus on the poor in the midst of prosperity is not class warfare, it's biblical faith. That's what the churches are saying, and the politicians better get used to it. n
JIM WALLIS is editor-in-chief of Sojourners. A portion of this column appeared on the MSNBC Web site.