wealth

The Problem of Poverty in 'The Great Gatsby'

Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby in 'The Great Gatsby.' Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

The Great Gatsby doesn’t exactly fit the mold for a story about poverty. It doesn’t play into the typical genre created by Dickens or Sinclair meant to incite social change by depicting feeble orphans or working-class suffering. Gatsby is a story of excess: of tall buildings, big parties, fancy clothes, shiny cars—all that 1920s glam and glitz.

And yet — distilled to its core, The Great Gatsby is a story of poorness from the lens of richness, a rags-to-riches story where we only get to see the riches. Though high school English classes across the country paint Jay Gatsby as the poster child for the American dream and its subsequent loss, The Great Gatsby gets its poignancy not from what is lost but rather what lingers — Gatsby’s offstage childhood poverty that not even money can erase. For underneath Jay Gatsby’s million-dollar façade is James Gatz, a college-dropout, janitor-turned-swindler “young roughneck” from a poor family. 

Americans Nearly Unanimous on 'Ideal' Wealth Distribution, But Unaware of Real Levels of Inequality

This week's viral video is a must-see. The six-minute "Wealth Inequality in America," released Friday, presents the shocking, true size of the wealth gap in the country.

In a series of animated infographics, the video lends a visual punch to numbers that are hard to wrap one’s head around. The top 1 percent of Americans hold 50 percent of all investments in stocks and bonds, for example – while 80 percent of Americans share a paltry 7 percent of the nation’s wealth.

Education and the Wealth Gap

 

Ask a random group of people, “How do we improve our public schools?” and you’re apt to get divergent, passionate answers. Christians, like other citizens, have different opinions on how to heal what’s hurting in our education system. What we can share is a belief that all children are truly precious in God’s sight and an understanding that public education is a key component of the common good—that a healthy school system has the potential to bring opportunity and uplift to children regardless of their economic status. Jan Resseger is the minister for public education and witness with the national Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ. She spoke with Sojourners associate editor Julie Polter in June.

Sojourners: Why is public education a commitment for the United Church of Christ?
Jan Resseger: The commitment to education is a long tradition for us. Our pilgrim forebears brought community schooling and higher education to the New England colonies—New England congregationalism is one of our denominational roots. Another root is the American Missionary Association (AMA), an abolitionist society that grew out of the defense committee for the Africans on the slave ship Amistad. The AMA founded schools for freed slaves as a path to citizenship across the South during and after the Civil War.

Several denominations came together as the UCC in 1957, and our general synods since then have taken stands on issues such as the protection of the First Amendment in public schools and supporting school desegregation through the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. From 1958 to the present, we have spoken to institutional and structural racism and classism in schools. We also have addressed privatization, because we’ve been strong supporters for many, many years of public schools as key to the strength of our society and democracy.

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'We Have a Long Way to Go'

For nearly 50 years, Jonathan Kozol has dedicated his life to working with low-income children in inner cities. As one of the leading advocates for public education reform and the author of three prize-winning books about his time with children in the South Bronx, Kozol is a steadfast champion of children subjected to poverty. Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America serves as his culminating work about his captivating journey, with them, of friendship, triumph, and loss.

As Jan Resseger points out in “Education and the Wealth Gap” in the September-October issue of Sojourners magazine, the unjust, systemic economic inequality in U.S. public education today harms the common good. Kozol writes with conviction and clarity that public education must be reformed to benefit all children, not just a select few.

Fire in the Ashes launched nationwide on August 28; he’s currently on a fall book tour. Sojourners assistant editor Elaina Ramsey, a former resident of the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx, spoke with Kozol in early August.

Elaina Ramsey: What compelled you to write Fire in the Ashes?
Jonathan Kozol: In the middle of the 1980s, I was drawn into the terrible struggles of the destitute families in New York. A religious friend of mine brought me to a homeless shelter in midtown Manhattan, a nightmarish place called the Martinique Hotel. It was a 17-story building packed with about 1600 children and their parents. I spent two or three years with families from that shelter. In 1990 and 1991, the city finally shut down that shelter and resettled them in the poorer sections of the South Bronx.              

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More Bullish Than You Think

HISTORICALLY, MOST ECONOMIC systems revolve around who owns the wealth. As an economist and historian, this is the question I bring to any discussion about our current economic crisis and any future “new economy” we might imagine.

While income distribution is important, wealth distribution is much more unevenly allocated in American society, and it gets very little attention. Let’s quickly look at the numbers.  

The richest 400 people in the U.S. own more wealth than the bottom 60 percent of the population. That’s more wealth (stocks, bonds, and businesses, but also houses and cars) than the bottom 150 million Americans. And the top 1 percent owns almost 50 percent of the society’s productive investment assets (corporate stocks, bonds, and privately held businesses, excluding cars and houses).

When you ask who owns the productive assets of the society, then you’re asking who owns American capitalism. The answer is: The top 1 percent owns just under half of it.

With this kind of wealth distribution, what we have is literally a medieval structure. I don’t mean that figuratively. It is a feudalistic structure of extreme power and wealth. And it is anathema to democracy to have that kind of concentration. This distribution of wealth—and the the fact that the top 1 percent has, over the last 30 years, increased its share of income from about 9 percent to about 20 percent—tells you something about the political/economic power harnessed to achieve that end.

The “new economy movement” that is building momentum around the country asserts that you can’t have a democratic society unless you democratize the ownership of wealth as well.

Here are six examples of where that’s happening right now:

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The Gospel According to Charles Dickens: Lifting Up the Lowly

Illustration from Dickens' "Christmas Carol." Photo by Tim King.
Illustration from Dickens' "Christmas Carol." Photo by Tim King.

Scrooge calls Christmas a “humbug.”

When his nephew tries to convince him otherwise, Scrooge responds:

“Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”

The nephew retorts:

“What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.”

The nephew concludes with this famous line about the holiday:

“Therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say God bless it!”

Moving Money: Investing in a New World

On Nov. 5 folks all over the world will divest from Wall Street and its banks … in order to invest in a better world.

Ideologies alone are not enough. There came a point in the movement to abolish slavery where ideology required responsibility. As one abolitionist said, “The only way to be a good slave-owner is to refuse to be a slave-owner.” To truly be against slavery also meant that you didn’t drink sugar in your tea, because sugar was produced with slave labor.

So on November 5, my wife and I will be joining the “Move Your Money” celebration, moving our money from Bank of America to the non-profit credit union here in Philadelphia.

It is one small step away from the vicious cycle that continues to see money transfer from the increasingly poor to the increasingly rich.

It is trying to take to heart Jesus’ command to “Get the log out” of my own eye.

It is a move towards Gandhi’s call to “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

It’s one little step towards being less of a hypocrite tomorrow than I am today.

WARNING: No Compassion. Proceed with Caution.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Where is the compassion in our economy and our politics? It says much of the economic system that Sojourners even needs to campaign for a "moral budget." How do we, as Christians, challenge structures that allow billions of dollars to be wasted via tax loopholes while 1 in 6 Americans live in poverty?

Will we, as Sachs hopes,

In Case You Missed It: #OccupyWallStreet's Official Statement

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From the official statement by #OccupyWallStreet: "As one people, united, we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members; that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to the individuals to protect their own rights, and those of their neighbors; that a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power."

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