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Bible Studies
Written by Jim Jordal   
Saturday, 06 December 2008

By Jim Jordal

If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still. The increase from the land is taken by all; the king himself profits from the fields.

Ecc. 5:8 (NIV)

Poverty in the U.S. remains a seemingly intractable problem—it never goes away. Massive charity never ends poverty—it only makes us feel better about it. And even strenuous, well-intentioned advocacy for the poor often becomes lost in a morass of competing legislative interests and values. Presidents and presidential candidates offer opinions and partial solutions, but the poor remain. No matter what we do or say, the problem persists for generation after generation.

Religious conservatives offer the excuse that, after all, didn’t Jesus say the poor would be always with us, so why deal with the issue at all? And besides, don’t you know that in spite of favorable governmental policies or good economic conditions the poor stay poor because they won’t work or else their family dysfunction keeps them in poverty? So poverty becomes a non-issue.

But laziness and family dysfunction are but two of the many issues surrounding intergenerational poverty. They keep getting mentioned as major causes of poverty simply because they are within the life experiences of all Americans. And in reality they do cause poverty; especially when they exist in conjunction with low educational standards, a shortage of jobs paying decent wages, physical illness and disabilities having nothing to do with the merits of the victims, transportation problems, and the general apathy of both government and many citizens.

The Scripture reading above indicates that we should not be surprised when poverty continues, even in the world’s wealthiest country. As the writer (probably Solomon) maintains, persistent denial of justice and rights is an endemic problem in most human societies. Poverty continues even as those scientific and cultural advances that at first promise deliverance from destitution seem to stall before utopia appears.

One factor playing a strong role in the persistence of poverty is the narrowing of various avenues of upward mobility in American society. When I was growing up education was the key to upward economic mobility—get a college degree and anything would be possible. And education was cheap—tuition was several hundred dollars a year at public institutions of higher education. In the generation following World War Two the GI Bill allowed millions to climb into the middle class through education and home ownership.

Not so today! Good education is rapidly becoming a prerogative mainly of the wealthy (or those willing to take on massive debt) as college expenses rocket into the stratosphere. And home ownership becomes ever more elusive and fraught with danger as unwary borrowers fall victim to predatory lending practices. .

But far and away the major source of continuing poverty is a persistent government bias in favor of the wealthy and prominent of society. Democrats like to blame Republicans for this sad situation, but both parties participate as if their very lives (they do) depend on it. Despite the rhetoric spouted by both parties against the excessive influence of money in politics, the sad fact remains that America becomes more plutocratic every year as the rich gain power by using their wealth to influence the political process.

This bias toward wealth is as old as this country. The Founding Fathers believed that only men of property were sufficiently wise to determine the direction of the new nation. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton proposed a financial plan that would tie the rich to the new nation by creating a national debt to be held by those with property and wealth. Thus they would support the new nation against the "excesses" of freedom demanded by the unwashed working class rabble from the frontier.

Only a few times in our history has this bias been seriously resisted. The Jacksonian Revolution, the Populist-Progressive era, and the New Deal questioned the basic values by which the powerful claim the right to rule. But in each case the revolutionary furor soon subsided as the nation turned again to rewarding the rich with economic gains earned by the labor of the poor.

Today the struggle continues as the ruling classes justify their literally obscene wealth and power by claiming that it results from free market forces rewarding economic risk-taking and financial literacy. This doctrinaire (and faulty) belief maintains that markets can and do allocate all goods and services fairly and efficiently. Allied with this view is the political ideology that freedom can best be preserved as the propertied classes are enticed through favorable rates of taxation and other economic benefits to support the government and the status quo financial situation.

As an example of this bias consider that during and after Second World War the top federal income tax rate was 91 percent, with estate taxes cutting deeply into inherited wealth. Compare that with today’s top tax rate of 36 percent, coupled with continued attacks by the rich and their congressional lackeys against the estate tax. This is bias translated into operation.

So why do the poor remain poor? The entire deck is stacked against them, and will remain so until common people become fed up enough to act. When will that be? Not yet. What we really need is the translation of Christian principles of economic justice into political policy and action. When this occurs, the poor will begin their recovery.

Last Updated ( Saturday, 06 December 2008 )