Economic, race gap widens
Gnawing, disturbing poverty — the kind made visible in images from New Orleans — is actually the result of two specific factors: first, sub-standard or non-existent jobs; and second, a government that consistently sides with the economic interests of the wealthy and white over the poor and people of color.
The latter is easy to spot. If you drive through any predominately African-American or Hispanic inner-city neighborhood — as opposed to white, rich suburbs — you simply can't ignore the in-your-face inequalities: dilapidating, under-funded schools; buckled roads and sidewalks; untended public parks populated with homeless, substance-addicted citizens who know first-hand of government neglect.
There is also the less-visible evidence of government's brush off: New bankruptcy laws that make it virtually impossible for the poor to escape predatory lendors, while corporations are given permission to rob retirees' pension plans to balance budgets bloated by CEO salaries. New trade agreements that make it impossible for smaller, good-intentioned shops and farms to compete. New Medicare rules that reward drug manufacturers by disallowing opportunities for seniors to find medicines at competitive, affordable prices. Ongoing avoidance of a health insurance crisis that means ever-more people will have less access to quality care.
Sub-standard or non-existent jobs, on the other hand, are certainly tied to public policy, but also are emblematic of how communities are increasingly anesthetized to the reality that good jobs are disappearing. We're told to be grateful when a new employer comes to town, offering $8-an-hour jobs when the cost of gas is above $3 a gallon. With work like that, one can safely assume that few dollars are being tucked away for Junior's college education. The cycle of poverty not only continues, it worsens.
As editor of United Church News, I am faced with important decisions about what and how this newspaper will report on the multi-faceted issues facing our society and our church. For a moment, after Hurricane Katrina, I considered scrapping our in-depth look at Wal-Mart (pages 10-11) in favor of more space devoted to the justice ramifications exposed by Katrina.
But then I realized that it is precisely the "Wal-Martization" of our U.S. economic system — sub-standard jobs, inadequate health insurance, non-existent retirement benefits, discriminatory hiring and wage practices, and antifamily work policies — that has sustained and widened the rich-poor gap that we Christians profess to despise.
"Sometimes it takes a natural disaster to uncover a social disaster," says Jim Wallis of Sojourners. In the coming days, if the church is to have any lasting impact on the "social disaster" uncovered by Katrina, it will take more than a generous, short-lived response to a single disaster; it will take a corporate covenant of compassion that links together our charitable impulses with a renewed passion for racial and economic justice.
Yes, as some will surely tell me, Wal-Mart has responded to Katrina with about $17 million in aid, which — I'm disturbed to point out — amounts to about $1 million less than it paid last year to just one employee — its CEO. That makes it clear to me that, until we begin to comprehend Wal-Mart's enormous size as the world's largest company and the nation's largest employer, we will never realize how we are trending all the more toward inequality, injustice and poverty.
More often than not, poverty really is the lived-out literary tale of Bob Cratchitt's employer — the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge — who cares little about his worker's needs, including those of a sick child — Tiny Tim — whose medical care depends on his father's wages. In the wake of Katrina, in addition to so much else, let us pray for a few changed hearts.