“The poor you have with you always.” Jesus of Nazareth is said to have spoken these words in three of the four Gospels. But he certainly didn’t mean that his followers should aim to keep it that way. On the contrary, Jesus admonished them to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, succor the sick – and change the systems that keep people poor. That kind of change is a major theme of the Christian Bible, both in the Hebrew and Greek traditions. Poverty is mentioned more than two thousand times.
And yet, in a country that is roughly three-quarters Christian, the poor are largely ignored and occasionally demonized.
We are seeing this as the business community reacts to an initiative from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to raise the minimum wage. Over and again, businesses claim they will leave the city because they won’t earn enough money to keep the doors open. That claim means that they will not make enough money to risk investment unless they can continue paying people a lot less than what it takes to live in our region. They are saying that their business depends on people doubling up in substandard apartments, kids going to school hungry, people not getting health care and dying early.
Periodically the economic pundits wring their hands over the new reality that California’s population growth has slowed and that lots of folks are moving away. They say that businesses are leaving, and lament the high taxes that are supposedly driving this exodus. In fact, new stats show it’s largely the lower-income households that are moving out of state. Wages aren’t high enough to afford the cost of living here.
But adequate pay is only one way that public policy keeps people poor. You can count education as another. Higher education is supposed to be a means for the poor to get better jobs. Young people hear it over and over: Stay in school. Go to college. Train for a better job than your parents had. It isn’t bad advice, but it ignores the desperate reality of poor people.
When I went to college, my family lived on about $300 a month. At that time a middle-class job paid somewhat less than $10,000 a year. We were on the low end of the scale. So I went to community college for the first two years, and worked about 30 to 35 hours a week at minimum wage, earning enough to pay for the rest of college without going too far into debt. Today that’s not so easy, because despite a California law on the books since 1960 that requires community college to be tuition-free, students now pay, er, “enrollment fees.” To do it these days, I would need significant loans or scholarships.
But student aid skews to the upper income brackets. As a Los Angeles Times Op-Ed piece reported, families earning $75,000 or more are twice as likely to receive student loans as families earning under $25,000. Tax credits for education also tilt towards the top, not the bottom. Meanwhile, Congress has cut funding for two significant financial aid programs aimed at low-income students. One declined 20 percent and another 54 percent in the last decade. At the same time, unsubsidized loans grew 156 percent. For the affluent, new opportunities. For the poor, fewer. Surely that is why the president called for tuition-free community colleges in his State of the Union address.
In addition to pay and education, the tax system also keeps people locked in poverty. Our system supposedly asks the wealthier to pay more and the poor less, but in truth it’s the opposite. The poorest one-fifth of all Americans pays 11 percent of their incomes in local and state taxes, while the richest pay about 5.4 percent. Because the very rich earn most of their income from capital, they pay a significantly lower rate than people who earn a living by working. Plus they get bigger charity and mortgage deductions.
All this leads me to the conclusion that our country thrives on an unconscious collusion to keep the poor stuck in their condition. The economic structure depends on maintaining poverty. As activists, our work must give voice to the unheard, make visible the unseen, and walk alongside people who struggle to break the cycle of working poverty. In my reading, that’s exactly what Jesus and the prophets – and all religions – teach us to do.
Rev. Jim Conn is the founding minister of the Church in Ocean Park and served on the Santa Monica City Council and as that city’s mayor. He helped found Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, Los Angeles, and was its second chair, and was a founder of Santa Monica’s renter’s rights campaign.
Reprinted by kind permission of the author and Capital & Main. The original is here.
Photo: Pedro Ribeiro Simões