There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores. When the poor man died, he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried, and from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. Luke 16:19-23
There was a cost to income inequality even in Jesus time. This cautionary tale, however, seems to have been forgotten today, just as it was over 2000 years ago.
Income inequality is real and is larger now than in any other time in our industrialized history.
In practical terms, this is the result of government policies which favor the rich.
We’ve already discussed ways that income inequality can be reversed – primarily by reversing the government policies which caused its rise in the first place.
Let’s look for a moment at the other end of the spectrum – the real costs of poverty.
The direct result of concentrating more of the nation’s income in the hands of the wealthy is that less money is going into the hands of the poor.
Less money in the hands of the poor has caused an increase in crime, specifically homicides and robbery in poor neighborhoods. In the 2002 report entitled “Inequality and Violent Crime”, the World Bank says,
Income inequality … has a positive and significant effect on homicide rates … the results for robberies are similar to those for homicides.
…when poverty falls … either because income growth rises or the distribution of income improves, then crimes rates tend to fall.
Seems a simple conclusion – poverty and crime are connected.
But the conservative response based on the “fairness” moral foundation, is that the poor are responsible for their own condition because of bad choices. If they break the law they should go to jail. The reality, however, is that our prisons are now overcrowded with people convicted mostly of non-violent minor drug crimes.
The United States has 25% of the world’s prisoners but only 5% of the world’s population. Incarceration rates over the last 20 years have risen while crime rates have dropped 40%. The direct taxpayer cost is $64B/year. The indirect costs are a generation of primarily minority men who are absent from their families and have difficulty finding work when they have served their time. That’s because, though drug use has no racial preference, 75% of the people in prison for non-violent drug offenses are black.
As a precursor to the rest of this discussion. It costs between $30K and $60K a year to house, feed, and guard each prisoner in our prison population. Roughly 50% of those released from prison will return within three years.
Criminologists have found that the single most effective tool to reduce recidivism is education. If we took the money that we are currently spending to keep non-violent offenders behind bars and spent it instead to provide support for them while they learned the skills necessary to secure a living-wage job, everyone benefits. Everyone, that is, except the corporations who profit from the prison industry.
The prison industry is only one example of the economic forces that are arrayed against the poor. The poor have no control over the economic bias that exists in this country. Their opportunity to change their circumstances is dramatically limited by violence, poor nutrition, poor schools, poor transportation, limited low wage jobs, single parent families, the high cost of child care, and all of the companies who have figured out how to profit from these conditions.
The conservative response is that we shouldn’t “reward” the poor for making bad decisions. Any attempt to level the playing field is regarded by many conservatives as “enabling” poverty rather than empowering the poor. The result is government programs “designed” to encourage work which actually punish the poor for having children. Support, for example, is tied to the number of children in the house rather than adults. But that support does not include the cost of child care and support is reduced by the amount of money earned. So many families find that when the costs of childcare are factored in, they can’t afford to work and also put food on the table. The supports are also not enough to allow one adult to work and the other to stay home with the children. The choice for many single mothers is to kick fathers, who may not be able to find a job because of past criminal records, out to support themselves while they stay home with the kids at least until they are old enough to go to school.
These programs could certainly be improved, But let’s look for just a moment at a more radical solution. What would it cost us as a country to simply eliminate poverty?
It is an intriguing idea. Just provide everyone sufficient support that they are no longer encumbered by the basic issues of survival in our society. Every adult, regardless of their background, is guaranteed a minimum stipend sufficient to support themselves.
In a September 2013 article for the American Prospect, Matt Bruenig stated:
Eradicating or dramatically cutting poverty is not the deeply complicated intractable problem people make it out to be. The dollars we are talking about are minuscule up against the size of our economy.
It would take only 1 percent of GDP, or a fourth of what we spend on defense every year, to lift every American below the poverty line up above it… In 2012, the number was $175.3 billion. That is how many dollars it would take to bring every person in the United States up to the poverty line.
What would happen if everyone in this country suddenly had enough to eat, had a safe place to live, and could afford to work and raise a family?
Violent crime rates would fall. That would save on what we currently invest in medical services, law enforcement, prison systems, and other civic support systems.
Corporations win because without poverty, Americans have more purchasing power. Democrats win because income inequality is credibly addressed. Republicans win due to a combination of reduced government costs and credible fiscal responsibility at all levels of income.
It is a simple, pay me now or pay me later, discussion. The challenge with this discussion, however, is that it touches the conservative moral foundation of “fairness”. Somebody getting something that they didn’t deserve.
Therein lies the fundamental challenge of our political age.
Conservatives believe that poverty in and of itself is a crime. Those who find themselves in poverty have no one but themselves to blame. The hardships associated with poverty are both a just punishment for bad choices as well as the disincentive that the poor need to change their circumstance.
If anyone doubts this, we need look no further than those who defended Mitt Romney after his famous “47%” speech.
In the rest of the Bible story, the rich man, now in eternal torment, begged Abraham that if he couldn’t be saved, at least warn his five brothers who still had time to mend their ways. Sending someone to them from beyond the grave would certainly do the trick.
He said, ‘Then I beg you, father, send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.’ Luke 16:27,28.
Abraham replied that Moses and the prophets HAVE been warning people.
Then Abraham said, ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.’ Luke 16:31
What we know now is that God did ALSO send someone who DID return from beyond the grave and DID provide the same warning.
Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal. Matthew 25:44-46
And you know what? Abraham was right, the wealthy and the politicians and voters who support them have not listened to Jesus either.
The choice is really simple.
You can defend the position that poverty is the incentive that the poor need to alter their circumstances – but you do so at great peril to your own salvation.
You can follow Jesus commands, embrace the poor, and generously tend to their needs. Great rewards have been promised those who follow this path.