The Common Good
May 2013

The Growing Wealth Gap

by Otis Moss III | May 2013

The heart of our faith calls us to attack poverty, the "cruel thief of dreams."

IN AMERICA, WE honor the ideal of equality and the myth of equal opportunity—but the secret we refuse to acknowledge is the debilitating, dehumanizing effects of poverty. As a pastor serving the South Side of Chicago, I witness firsthand the pain that poverty inflicts upon our congregation and the scars it leaves on the most vulnerable: children. Faith in Christ should mean a commitment to the poor.

There is a growing wealth gap between African-American households and white households. A Pew research study, for example, shows the dramatic change between 2005 and 2009. In 2005, the typical white household had a net worth of $134,992 (in 2009 dollars), while the typical black household had a net worth of $12,124—9 cents for each dollar the white household owned. By 2009, that fell to 5 cents, as the typical black household saw its net worth drop more than 53 percent, as compared to a drop of 16 percent for the average white household. And, alarmingly, 35 percent of black households in 2009 had a zero or negative net worth.

A few seek to blame this damaging downward trend on the current administration's policies. This is unfair and incorrect. Black families have traditionally built wealth through homeownership, but since the mid-1990s we have witnessed a dramatic increase in bank mergers—and predatory lending. Local banks, now owned by large corporate institutions with little interest in community investment, increasingly close branches in poor communities, then check-cashing establishments fill the void in financial services. At the same time, our nation faces the loss of manufacturing and the dismantling of organized labor. The triple threat of regressive economic policy, unchecked expansion of large, unaccountable financial institutions, and the economic crisis of 2008 devastated parts of cities across the nation: Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Atlanta, New York, Buffalo, Flint, and many others.

The real victims of poor political leadership will always be children. More than 16 million children in America are living in conditions usually associated with developing countries. America now has the largest number of people in poverty in 52 years; more than 46 million people languish in a latrine of broken dreams and promises. The crisis is graver when the lens of race is added to the equation. Black children in poverty in America live a separate and unequal status: in housing and health disparities, under-funded schools, and food "deserts." It is criminal and sinful that we tolerate this economic violence perpetuated upon our most vulnerable, precious citizens.

I believe the key factor for turning around this poverty is mobilizing communities of faith willing to reconnect with the love and justice preached by Jesus. Pastor Rudy Rasmus, of St. John's United Methodist Church in Houston, has made alleviating hunger in the poorest wards of Houston a ministry priority. Chicago's Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (SOUL), led by Rev. Booker Vance of St. Stephen's Lutheran Church, is an interdenominational group committed to "occupying the hood" against foreclosures and providing a welcoming community to citizens returning from prison. My home church, Trinity United Church of Christ, has taken on the issue of restorative justice in the local school system. Knowing that a child expelled is likely to become a child in jail, we are committed to creating alternative strategies to expulsion.

The call of the church has been, and always will be, to become the compassionate hands and feet of Christ. Poverty, when attached to race, is the original sin of America, a country built by slave labor and enriched by the unfair labor practices of the Industrial Revolution. The challenge before the church, especially churches serving people of color, is to take hold of the mantle of Martin Luther King Jr.'s call to build a movement across racial, ethnic, and gender lines —a "poor people's campaign"—to attack this cruel thief of dreams known as poverty. 

Otis Moss III is senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

Image: Poor child, Olesia Bilkei / Shutterstock.com

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