Economic Justice

Christian Piatt 1-22-2014
Rich man drinking wine, ollyy / Shutterstock.com

Rich man drinking wine, ollyy / Shutterstock.com

A recent report by OXFAM offered some sobering data about both the concentration and flow of wealth in the world today. A few key points, also summarized by a new business article on The Atlantic website , include:

  • The richest 85 people in the world control as much wealth as the poorest 3,000,000,000 people;
  • Nineteen out of 20 “G20” countries are experiencing growing income inequality between rich and poor;
  • In the United States in particular, 95 percent of the post-financial-crisis capital growth has been amassed by the richest 1 percent of Americans;
  • While domestic income inequality continues to grow, the income tax rates for wealthiest Americans have steadily dropped.

My first reaction to seemingly immoral concentrations of wealth, and the systems that enable it, is anger and a compulsion to call them out, to change them and to distribute the world’s treasures evenly among all of God’s people.

But what if we need the insanely wealthy to realize a kingdom-inspired vision for our world?

Anna Hall 1-22-2014
Child sitting alone, Suzanne Tucker / Shutterstock.com

Child sitting alone, Suzanne Tucker / Shutterstock.com

Despite all the modern conveniences of the 21st century, our information-saturated culture, an exhaustive supply of self-help books, and giant advances in medical technology, doesn’t it seem like our society is more stressed, our anxiety higher, and more of our kids prescribed behavior modification drugs?

What if one of the reasons for our strung-out culture was the social, emotional, mental, and physiological outworking of the effects of poverty?

In the latest release of the Shriver Report, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, founder of the California Pacific Medical Center’s Bayview Child Health Center, has found through medical research and experiences of her patients that the stress of poverty can be manifested in alarming behaviors and predispositions.

Suzanne Ross 1-22-2014
By Nicholas Wang, derivative work by Poke2001, via Wikimedia Commons

By Nicholas Wang, derivative work by Poke2001, via Wikimedia Commons

There’s an absurd character in The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who reveals more about our capacity for self-delusion than we might want to admit. He’s called the King and when it comes to desire, he is as deluded about his own power as we are about ours. The King’s delusion is this: he believes that the movements of the sun, moon, and stars are the result of his commands. That’s right – the sun rises and sets because the King commands it to be so. Our delusion is nearly identical: we believe that we are the source of our desires, that they arise and fall at our command. Because of our shared delusions, we and the King are quite out of touch with reality. Remarkably, the cure for us is also the same – spending some quality time with the Little Prince.

Lisa Sharon Harper 1-17-2014
Child alone in a tunnel,  hikrcn / Shutterstock.com

Child alone in a tunnel, hikrcn / Shutterstock.com

SNAP began in 1964 when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Food Stamp Act as part of his unconditional “War on Poverty.” In his remarks upon signing, Johnson said: “I believe the Food Stamp Act weds the best of the humanitarian instincts of the American people with the best of the free enterprise system. Instead of establishing a duplicate public system to distribute food surplus to the needy, this act permits us to use our highly efficient commercial food distribution system.”

Johnson continued: “It is one of many sensible and needed steps we have taken to apply the power of America's new abundance to the task of building a better life for every American.”

Imagine. Fifty years ago the Food Stamp Act was viewed not as charity, but rather as an ingenious utilization of American enterprise in order to help “build a better life for every American.”

And it is genius.

Joel Berg 1-16-2014
Child holding empty bowl, Suzanne Tucker / Shutterstock.com

Child holding empty bowl, Suzanne Tucker / Shutterstock.com

The central figures in four of the planet’s largest religions – Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism – were all once homeless. Moses was encamped in the Sinai, unable to return to the Promised Land. Jesus was born in a manger. Buddha wandered through the wilderness seeking enlightenment. The Prophet Muhammad was forced out of Mecca.

Is it a coincidence that each of these figures was, at key parts of his life, dispossessed from the society around him? Hardly. This is a clear message that even the most powerful can be made powerless.

In both Leviticus and Deuteronomy, believers are directed to give a set portion of their harvest to people in poverty and immigrants. It is neither voluntary, nor are the amounts to be based on charitable whims. It is a commandment to automatically give a specific percent, making it an anti-hunger tax of sorts. In fact, both the Old and New Testaments make it clear that justice is a higher calling than mere charity.

In Mathew 25, not only does Christ proclaim that those who clothe, house, and feed the “least of these” are engaging in acts equivalent to directly aiding the Lord, he also preaches that those who refuse to aid the poor are consigned to damnation.

Most secular ethical traditions also make societal actions to reduce hunger, poverty, and homelessness a centerpiece of their teachings.

Virtually every elected official in Washington claims to abide by these ethical and faith-based traditions. Indeed, many have used their professions of faith to advance their political careers.

Yet many of these same leaders repeatedly take actions opposite to the values they espouse.

Jim Wallis 1-09-2014

Created by Brandon Hook/Sojourners. Photos: Nolte Lourens/Shutterstock and bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock

The only way to win the “war on poverty” is for liberals and conservatives to make peace — for the sake of the poor. That would be the best way to mark the 50th anniversary of the war on poverty, declared by President Lyndon Johnson in his January 1964 State of the Union address. Making peace means replacing ideologies with solutions that actually solve the problems of poverty. With both Republicans and Democrats speaking out on poverty this week, and the recession slowly receding this should be an opportunity to find the focus, commitment, and strategies that could effectively reduce and ultimately eliminate the shameful facts of poverty in the world’s richest nation.

For any proposal, the basic question must be whether it helps more people and families rise out of poverty and realize their dreams. This means setting aside political self-interest and thinking beyond our too often inflexible ideologies.

Anna Hall 1-08-2014
J.Simunek/Shutterstock

A common myth regarding raising minimum wage is that it's bad for the economy. J.Simunek/Shutterstock

It’s a new year, and Congress is back in session.

One of the top issues expected to be debated in 2014 is a hike to the federal minimum wage. 13 states have instituted wage increases. President Obama has supported raising the minimum wage throughout his presidency. Most recently, he shared his approval of new legislation proposed by Sen. Tom Harkin and George Miller (D-Calif.) that would raise the minimum wage to $10.10, up from it’s current $7.25. 

Critics of the Harkin/Miller bill are quick to decry any wage increase. The usual arguments are trotted out to combat progressive pay for low-wage earners. Here are five commonly perpetuated myths about minimum wage. Hopefully, their exploration will shed a more accurate light on this contested issue.

Lisa Sharon Harper 1-07-2014
Lisa Sharon Harper/Sojourners

President Obama speaks after the Senate cleared a three-month extension of Unemployment benefits. Lisa Sharon Harper/Sojourners

I stood in line and waited until they called my number.

“Neeeext,” the woman behind the counter called!

The woman put out an energy that dared anyone to cross her, challenge her, even speak to her. She gave me a pile of papers to fill out “over there,” she waved her hands dismissively in the general direction of all the other losers sitting in rows of old school desks — the kind where the chair and the desk are attached. They were all fully engrossed in one task: filling out their unemployment insurance applications. I joined them.

Of course we weren’t losers, but it felt like we were. We were grown adults. We represented many races: white, black, Latino, and Asian. We represented a small fraction of the sea of people who were out of work at the height of the economic crisis. If you had come to us only weeks before we were school teachers and firemen, opera singers, Wall Street brokers, and justice advocates (like me). But now we were all numbers, experiencing the same humiliating moment together.

But, how much more humiliating it would have been to be thrown out of my apartment? How much more dehumanizing would it have been to become homeless or go without food?

Ruxandra Guidi 1-06-2014

Mint, a former sex worker, now makes jewelry that helps support the work of NightLight International. Photo: Bear Guerra / RNS

A small delicate silver cross hangs around Mint’s neck, a charm she reaches for nervously from time to time as she speaks.

Mint is her nickname, an Anglicized version of the long Thai name she was given and would rather not make public. As a former prostitute, the 24-year-old is concerned about bringing shame to her family, though she says everyone in her village in the northeastern province of Issan  — a poor agricultural region along the border with Cambodia and Laos — would assume, or simply know, she had to be doing sex work to send money back home.

Everyone in Bangkok knows how it works. Many of the countless massage parlors, go-go bars, and karaoke joints peppered throughout the city are frequently thinly veiled fronts for prostitution. Heavily made-up girls hang around in the periphery of joints catering to Western tourists.

Margaret Benefiel 1-01-2014
Flickr/Creative Commons

Pope Francis Catholic Church/Flickr/Creative Commons

Pope Francis, in his message for the World Day of Peace on Jan. 1, stresses the concept of fraternity as the basis for a moral economy, moral society, and moral relationships among nations. 

A longing for fraternity, the pope argues, lives within every human heart.

In the heart of every man and woman is the desire for a full life, including that irrepressible longing for fraternity which draws us to fellowship with others and enables us to see them not as enemies or rivals, but as brothers and sisters to be accepted and embraced. Fraternity is an essential human quality, for we are relational beings. A lively awareness of our relatedness helps us to look upon and to treat each person as a true sister or brother; without fraternity it is impossible to build a just society and a solid and lasting peace.

Too often, Pope Francis explains, this human desire for fraternity has been undermined by other human inclinations, those of selfishness, envy, and greed. He argues that those inclinations form a poor foundation for human societies and economies, and that we must build a foundation for society and the economy based on the “transcendent dimension” of humanity: 

Kathy Kelly 12-31-2013
Kathy Kelly with Safar, an Afghan “street child”

Kathy Kelly with Safar, an Afghan “street child”

Kabul, Afghanistan, is “home” to hundreds of thousands of children who have no home. Many of them live in squalid refugee camps with families that have been displaced by violence and war. Bereft of any income in a city already burdened by high rates of unemployment, families struggle to survive without adequate shelter, clothing, food, or fuel. Winter is especially hard for refugee families. Survival sometimes means sending their children to work on the streets, as vendors, where they often become vulnerable to well-organized gangs that lure them into drug and other criminal rings.

Last year, the Afghan Peace Volunteers (APV), young Afghans who host me and other internationals when we visit Kabul, began a program to help street children enroll in schools. The volunteers befriend small groups of children, get to know the children’s families and circumstances, and then reach agreements with the families that if the children are allowed to attend school and reduce their working hours on the streets, the APVs will compensate the families, supplying them with oil and rice. Next, the APVs buy warm clothes for each child and invite them to attend regular classes at the APV home to learn the alphabet and math.

Yesterday, Abdulhai and Hakim met a young boy, Safar, age 13, who was working as a boot polisher on a street near the APV home. Abdulhai asked to shake Safar’s hand, but the child refused. Understandably, Safar may have feared Abdulhai. But when Abdulhai and Hakim told Safar there were foreigners at the APV office who were keen to help, he followed them into our yard.

Rachel Marie Stone 12-18-2013
Courtesy WFAA-TV and Charlotte Street Films

Ethan Crouch (left) and Kevin Ott (right). Courtesy WFAA-TV and Charlotte Street Films

I recently watched Eugene Jarecki’s remarkable documentary, The House I Live In, which is about the American ‘war on drugs’ and the burgeoning prison population it engendered and continues to engender.

Rarely do I find myself murmuring and tsk-tsking during a movie, but this one was highly affecting — an intimate look at how history, racism, economics, and politics have created a system that no one is proud of and no one really likes. Even the cops and prison guards who claim to love their jobs express unease with the human suffering and unbalanced scales of justice that lead to it.

One particular story has stayed with me.

A man named Kevin Ott was found in possession of a small envelope of meth; prior to that he’d been arrested twice, again for possessing small amounts of illegal drugs (meth and marijuana).

He’s been in prison for seventeen years. And he will be there until he dies: Ott is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Because he was a three-time offender, his state’s mandatory sentencing laws required that he be put away for life.

Andrew Abela, dean of School of Business and Economics at Catholic University of America. Photo: Ed Pfueller/CUA, via RNS.

Dozens of Catholic leaders are protesting the decision by the Catholic University of America to accept a large donation from the foundation of Charles Koch, a billionaire industrialist who is an influential supporter of libertarian-style policies that critics say run counter to church teaching.

Charles Koch and his brother, David, “fund organizations that advance public policies that directly contradict Catholic teaching on a range of moral issues from economic justice to environmental stewardship,” says a four-page letter to CUA President John Garvey, released Monday.

The letter was signed by 50 priests, social justice advocates, theologians, and other academics, including several faculty at CUA in Washington.

With just a few days to go before Christmas, many Americans will be rushing around completing their Christmas preparations: doing their last minute shopping, finalizing travel plans, figuring out how to deal with awkward family dynamics. In many cases, they will be faced with what is popularly known as #firstworldproblems — problems of inconvenience of a privileged and affluent people: delayed flights, out-of-stock gift items, spotty cell phone coverage.

At the same time, many people, hidden amidst the consumer celebration that Christmas has become, will be struggling just to find their next meal, shelter, community, and hope.

Striking census bureau statistics released earlier this year paint a picture of an expanding American underclass, with 15% of Americans living at or below the poverty-line, 23% of children (the highest percentage of poor by age) living in poverty, and the evaporation of the American middle class.

On the one hand, at this time of year, our society is more aware of the poor. Holiday food collections, toy and clothing drives abound, as does the ubiquitous ringing of Salvation Army bells. And yet, in many ways the plight of the poor is more hidden by the bright lights and rush of the season.

Jesse James DeConto 12-13-2013
il_76/Shutterstock

'This Little Light of Mine' takes on a whole new meaning in the context of the civil rights movement. il_76/Shutterstock

We used to sing this song in Sunday School, as far back as I can remember, way back when I was learning to use a big-boy potty and tie my shoes. The little light was our faith in Jesus, and letting it shine was sharing it with others, who didn't know him. Jesus loved the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, they were precious in his sight, Jesus loved the little children of the world. He would make us FISHERS! of men, FISHERS! of men, FISHERS! of men, if we followed him, if we followed him, if we FAW! LOWED! HIM! I should dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone, dare to have a purpose firm, dare to make it known. Even if they fed me to the lions.

It took almost 30 years for me to really see "This Little Light" in action. Before that, it was mostly an ideal standard that made me feel guilty for not living up to it, a measuring stick that set me in competition with all the other little lights around me; if I shined a little brighter, you'd try too. But two years before Occupy Wall Street demanded economic reform at the national level, the candles lit in Charlotte, N.C., as hundreds of protestors marched on Bank of America and Wachovia in the fall of 2009. In the midst of the subprime mortgage crisis, with people facing ballooning interest rates and foreclosures on their homes, organizers delivered a theological statement against what they called "usury" — the Old Testament sin of collecting interest from the poor.

The Rev. David Beckmann is president of Bread for the World and a World Food Prize laureate. Photo courtesy Bread for the World.

In his first Advent address, Pope Francis directed Christians to be guided by the “Magnificat,” Mary’s song of praise for the coming Christ child. She proclaims that God has “lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:52-53). This past Tuesday, Pope Francis heeded his own exhortation by releasing a video message calling for an end to hunger as part of a worldwide “wave of prayer.”

Hundreds of Christian organizations across the globe participated in the “wave of prayer,” which was organized by Caritas International, a confederation of Catholic charities in the Vatican.

“We are in front of a global scandal of around 1 billion people who still suffer from hunger today,” Pope Francis said in his message. “We cannot look the other way.” The wave began at noon on the Pacific island of Samoa and proceeded west with people of faith from each subsequent time zone participating at noon their time.

Christian Piatt 12-12-2013
 Lissandra Melo/Shutterstock

Junk food tends to be more readily available than fresh produce in areas where poor people live. Lissandra Melo/Shutterstock

I love Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace coursework. It put our family on stable financial footing years ago, and Amy and I never fight about financial matters any more. We find plenty of other things to fight about, but that’s a different post, I suppose.

Ramsey has come under fire recently for a list of “Rich People Habits” he posted on his blog. The list was compiled by Tom Corley at a site called RichHabitsInstitute.com, which is intended to track what people of means do differently in daily life than the rest of us (aside from brush their teeth with platinum-bristled brushes, since that one’s a given).

On the one hand, I’ll agree that observing a cohort of people you want to emulate and learning from their habits makes a lot of sense, but I can see why Ramsey and Corley have caught so much heat for comparing habits of “poor people” with those of the wealthy.

There are two problems that I see. First, though Ramsey tends to be an advocate for the poor with regard to pushing back against usury lending and the like, he draws many false correlations between the habits listed below and the fact that folks who practice them are in poverty. In fact, in a recent defense of the post, Ramsey reiterated this point, writing, “This list simply says your choices cause results. You reap what you sow.”

The other concern the list raises for me is that it appears to be blind to the inherent privilege linked to the habits, as if all people had equal access to such practices and resources. Not so, Dave. Below I’ve shared several of the 20 habits on the original list (which can be found here), followed by my thoughts on where they fall short.

Rebecca Kraybill 12-09-2013

“She wakes to the sound of breathing. The smaller children lie tangled beside her, their chests rising and falling under winter coats and wool blankets.”

So begins the New York Times story following Dasani, an 11-year-old girl living homeless in New York. Dasani lives with her parents and seven siblings in a family residence shelter. From school to dance class to home, Dasani feels the weight of poverty and an unstable family.

According to the story, one in five children in America live in poverty, “giving the United States the highest child poverty rate of any developed nation except for Romania.”

In this five-part multimedia story, life told through Dasani’s eyes offers an honest look at homelessness and the pursuit for a hopeful future.

Read the full story here.

Gar Alperovitz 12-09-2013

As the country marks Martin Luther King Jr.'s 85th birthday, a veteran activist explains why it would be a mistake to remember King as only a great civil rights leader.

Cosmocatalano/Flickr/Creative Commons

Cosmocatalano/Flickr/Creative Commons

Fear, anxiety, and secrecy marked the roughly year and a half I received federal food stamps.

Like the New Testament’s famed Samaritan woman who snuck to the well at an odd hour to get water, I tried to retrieve the sustenance my family needed outside the view of my immediate community.

I tried never to let those around me see me using the food stamp card, and certainly wouldn’t have ever told my extended family or friends. I wanted no one to know I was living outside the bounds of “acceptable” life.

I had decided to find out whether I qualified for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) while a full-time seminary student trying to raise three teens — one of them in college. I worked jobs as much as I could around my school schedule, but in the end I never had enough money to pay bills, meet my children’s needs, and buy enough groceries for the month.

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