Magazine article The Christian Century

Relative Poverty

Magazine article The Christian Century

Relative Poverty

Article excerpt


WHICH VIEW of economic inequality has greater merit? The one espoused by Adam Smith, the father figure of capitalism? Or the teaching that unfolds from the Bible's pleadings for justice and righteousness?

It's a trick question. In fact, these two perspectives are broadly the same. Smith, like the biblical writers, was opposed to gross income inequality. They agree that the issue of how people are faring relative to others in society is not simply a question of envy. It's a matter of human dignity and social well-being.

There's another outlook on inequality that has many adherents. Let's call it the We Got Stuff school of thought. It points out, correctly, that almost everyone in the U.S. has things not even the rich had at one time--like microwaves and color televisions. And even the down-and-out have a standard of living that eludes most people in destitute nations. That's what matters, according to this way of thinking. Widening gaps between rich and poor are beside the point.

One global spokesperson for the Smith-and-scripture position is Pope Benedict XVI. In Caritas in Veritate ("Charity in Truth"), his 2009 encyclical, the pope inveighs against "the scandal of glaring inequalities." In October of this year, the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace highlighted the "urgent need of a true world political authority" to address such disparities, within as well as between nations. The council's 6,500-word document, "Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority," calls for regulations to curtail the "inequalities and distortions of capitalist development."

As for the We Got Stuff school, this summer the Heritage Foundation issued Air Conditioning, Cable TV,, and an Xbox: What Is Poverty in the United States Today? Following political scientist James Q. Wilson, Heritage senior scholars Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield declared that the poor today live better than the rich did a century ago and enjoy conveniences that the middle class couldn't afford in the recent past.

Using Census Bureau data from 2005, Rector and Sheffield examined the home of the average family living below the federal poverty line. They found that, for example, "in the kitchen, the household had a refrigerator, an oven and stove, and a microwave." Also spotted were washing machines, ceiling fans, cordless phones and coffeemakers. "Poor families certainly struggle to make ends meet," the authors allowed, "but in most cases, they are struggling to pay for air conditioning and the cable TV bill as well as to put food on the table."

Rector and Sheffield are right that we shouldn't take our society's material progress for granted. But the trouble with this line of reasoning is that Americans today don't live in the 1890s or another bygone era. And they generally don't reside in the bush of Botswana or some other impoverished land, either.

As is customary for humans, Americans inhabit a particular space and time. They live in communities and need access to the resources that will help them participate fully in those communities. This means they need basics, such as a decent-paying job, health insurance and retirement security. At present it also often means needing cell phones, computers and reliable cars. …

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