Meanderings

Ron Sider on The State of the Union on Poverty

Link: The State of the Union on Poverty by Ron Sider– Beliefnet.com.

Ron Sider is calling evangelicals to action.  I posted his article "The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience" which called Christians to reexamine their attraction / addiction to the values of the world in general and to USAmerican culture in particular.  In this article he continues to challenge us to live into being fully devoted followers of Jesus … being "little Christs" in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther.  Read on …

The State of the Union on Poverty: What would an honest evaluation of President Bush’s impact on domestic poverty look like? By Ronald J. Sider

I was one of about twenty-five religious leaders President-elect George W. Bush invited to talk with him about his faith-based initiative in December, 2000, right after the election was decided. I had been intrigued by his call for compassionate conservatism. That day, he told us there is a poverty of the soul and a poverty of the wallet. I agreed with him that faith-based groups are much better at correcting the first. But government, he said, can help with the poverty of the wallet. I was cautiously hopeful.

What happened? Vastly less than he promised, as David Kuo has recently pointed out.

But what is the
actual situation today? If the President were to give an honest “State
of the Union on Poverty,” what would he have to tell the richest nation
in human history about poverty here and abroad?

The U.S. has the
highest level of poverty of any industrialized nation. 12.5 percent
(35.9 million) of all Americans fall below the federal poverty level of
$19,157 for a family of four. The number of Americans in poverty has
jumped by more than a million every year from 2001-2003. We have
millions of Americans working full-time all year round without earning
enough to escape poverty. At $5.15 per hour, the minimum wage is not
enough to enable a parent with children to even get close to escaping
poverty. Forty-five million Americans lack health insurance–and the
number keeps growing each year. The U.S. is the only industrialized
nation that does not guarantee health insurance to all its people.

As the number of
poor, uninsured Americans expands, the rich get much richer. From
1979-2001, the after-tax income of the richest one percent grew by 139
percent (from $294,300 to $703,100) while the bottom 20 percent saw a
meager gain of 8.5 percent, from $13,000 to $14,000 (it was 14.8
percent for the second 20 percent and 16.8 percent for the middle 20
percent). Already in 2000, the U.S. was the most unequal society of all
industrialized nations. (In fact, the richest one percent have more
wealth than the bottom 90 percent!) The Bush tax cuts made it worse.

For the richest
nation in human history–a nation which claims a Judeo-Christian
heritage–that is a moral outrage. Surely there ought to be a moral
consensus across all religious faiths and political parties that every
American who works full-time year-round in a responsible way will
escape poverty and enjoy affordable health coverage.

What is the global
picture? We have made significant progress in the last few decades. In
1970, 35 percent of all the people in the developing world experienced
chronic malnourishment. Today, that figure is only 17 percent. Asia is
the primary reason for the improvement. Africa has more poverty today.
The percentage of poor people in Latin America has changed very little
for several decades. But the widespread embrace of market economies
throughout Asia has led to rapid economic growth and a rapid decline of
poverty. Solid growth in health care has also occurred. In 1980, only
about 20 percent of the children in developing countries received
immunization for basic childhood diseases like polio and measles. Today
the figure is about 80 percent.

In
spite of this progress, 30,000 children still die every day of
starvation or diseases we know how to prevent. That’s 210,000 a
week–more than all those killed in the recent Asian tsunami. Dramatic
headlines produced momentary generosity for those devastated by the
raging seas, but we largely ignore the weekly tsunami of dying
children, year after year.

The World Bank
reports that 1.2 billion people try to survive on one dollar a day.
Another 1.6 billion have only two dollars a day. The 20 percent of the
world’s people living in the richest nations are seventy-four times
richer than those in the poorest. And we have learned over the past
several decades what kinds of economic assistance by rich countries can
dramatically reduce poverty in poor nations. We know what to do.

So what do we do? We spend more on golf each
year than it would take, over eight years, to prevent 30 million poor
people from dying of AIDS. As we have grown richer decade by decade,
all the rich nations have given less and less as a percentage of GNP to
help poor nations escape poverty. President Bush has substantially
increased U.S. funding to fight poverty and AIDS in the developing
world, but the U.S. still stands at the very bottom of all
industrialized nations in the percentage of GNP (.14%) it spends on
foreign economic assistance.

What would an honest evaluation of President Bush’s impact on domestic poverty look like?

I think that what
he has done in the faith-based initiative is important and potentially
historic. Some poverty is due to a “poverty of the soul”–broken people
make bad choices about drugs, sex, alcohol, work and marriage, and the
result is social decay and poverty. Bush’s policies have leveled the
playing field and substantially removed the barriers that wrongly
prevented deeply religious faith-based organizations from accessing
government funds for their effective social programs in things like job
training and drug rehab. The changes allow faith-based programs to
raise private funds for their specifically religious activities and
access government funds for other things in a way that enables them to
uniquely combine inner spiritual and outer socio-economic
transformation. All of us–poor people and society generally–win.

The tragedy is that
President Bush has acted as if he did not believe his own words about a
poverty of the wallet that government can help solve. Except for
substantial funding for his No Child Left Behind program and now for
expanded Pell grants, he has done almost nothing to provide dollars for
effective programs to empower poor Americans. He has cut Section 8
vouchers that help poor families afford housing. Both he and state
governments are cutting health care programs for the poor (Medicaid).
Because of the cost of the Iraqi war and huge tax cuts that largely
benefitted the richest 20 percent, Bush’s most recent budget tries to
reduce the budget deficit by cutting or eliminating dozens of programs
to help poor Americans. It is immoral to ask poor Americans to pay for
the war or tax cuts for the rich.

If
President Bush really believed in an “Ownership Society,” he would
spend less time selling a questionable “reform” of Social Security
(which is likely to benefit the rich and hurt the poor) and instead
persuade the American people that everybody who works responsibly
should earn a family wage and have health insurance. He would promote
some combination of increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit and raising
the minimum wage. He would make the Child Care Tax Credit refundable so
it helps the poor as well as the middle class. He would embrace
Individual Development Accounts for every child in a family at 150
percent or less of the poverty level. At birth, for example, the
government could give every such child $1000-$5000, and then match–up
to $500 per year–money added to the IDA by every child (or its family,
church or community group). This money, invested in a conservatively
managed stock/bond mutual fund, could only be used for college
expenses, a first house or business or retirement. Think what it would
do for poor kids all across our cities to watch (and study in school
how) their personal IDA was growing into thousands of dollars that was
theirs.

Sure, it would cost
some money. But Bush signed a bill last year giving $140 billion in
corporate welfare to large corporations. His multi-trillion dollar tax
cuts went overwhelmingly to the richest 20 percent. [According to the
Brookings Institution, 5 percent of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts went to
the bottom 20 percent (average: $27) and 70 percent to the top 20
percent (average: $5,055)–in fact, 26 percent went to the top one
percent (average: $34,992).] We have more than enough money to fund
effective programs to empower the poor here and abroad. It is simply a
question of whether President Bush and Congress care enough about the
poor to partially reduce the enormous tax cuts and other “welfare”
benefits they have given to huge corporations and the richest
Americans.

Does anybody doubt what decision Jesus and the prophets would have made?

In fact, one
wonders what evangelical political voices will recommend to President
Bush. They voted overwhelmingly (78%) for him. But they also are
committed to following the Bible which has hundreds of verses that
teach that God and God’s people have a special concern for the poor. An
important new document now adopted as the official policy of the
National Association of Evangelicals (which represents 30 million
American evangelicals) has a strong statement on justice for the poor.
In January, a distinguished list of evangelical leaders wrote to
President Bush urging him to do more to overcome poverty in the next
four years. If large numbers of evangelical leaders and voters become
effective advocates for the poor, the report on the State of the Union
on Poverty in four years would be more hopeful. And President Bush’s
vision of compassionate conservatism could be more than empty rhetoric.

Ronald J. Sider is
President of Evangelicals for Social Action. The fifth edition of his
classic book on global poverty, ‘Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger,’
will appear in a few weeks. He has also written ‘Just Generosity: A New
Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America.’ In his most recent book,
‘The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience,’ he shows that evangelical
voters don’t practice what they preach.