Should Overcoming Poverty and Inequality be National Objectives?

“Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is a protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.”  Nelson Mandela

By President Mandela’s measure, more than 46 million Americans–––15% of our fellow citizens­­­, and 22% of our children––– are denied that fundamental human right because their annual family income falls below the official poverty line. Tens of millions more suffer from near poverty: According to the United States Census bureau, half of all Americans are now considered poor or low income.

This, in my opinion, is a moral crisis that is exacerbated by an ever-increasing gap between the very rich and everyone else––– a gap that has led to the deterioration of America’s middle class. In doing research for my book, The Idea of America, I found a consistent historical gulf between the rich and the poor. But since the second half of the 20th century the difference between those at the top of the economic scale and everyone else has expanded to an extent that is unacceptable for a viable democracy.

 How wide is the divide? Alan Dunn reported in Forbes magazine that the average income of a person in the top 1% is more than $700,000 and their net worth is $8.4 million. The average income of the other 99% is $51,000 and their net worth is 70 times less than those in the one percent.

Nobel Memorial prizewinner Joseph Stiglitz summed it up in his book The Price of Inequality: “The simple story of America is this––– the rich are getting richer, the richest of the rich are getting still richer, the poor are becoming poorer and more numerous and the middle class is being hollowed out.”

America has been wrestling with the issue of poverty for decades. As President Ronald Reagan said in 1986, the nation fought a war against poverty, “and poverty has won.”  But recognizing the increasing effects of income disparity and the decline of the middle class is a relatively new focus in our political sphere.

Kent Conrad (D-ND), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee committee, said, “The growing gap between the very wealthy and everyone else…goes against one of the core ideals of this country.”

Why should we care about the dual issue of poverty and inequality? We should care as a matter of basic human decency, and because poverty combined with an unequal distribution of wealth destabilizes our society. People at opposite ends of the wealth scale lose a sense of connection with one another, a sense that we are united as a nation in a common cause.

The effects of poverty and inequality cascade through our social, educational, health and economic systems with particularly cruel outcomes for children: Nearly a quarter of all American children live in poverty and 16 million children are food insecure. There are more than one million homeless children enrolled in our public schools.

However, most Americans don’t agree that income disparity damages all of us. A December 2011 Gallup Poll found that 52% of Americans believed that the gap was “an acceptable part of our economic system,” and only 45% said that it needed to be rebalanced.

Furthermore, a September, 2012 report from the Pew Research Center stated that “Americans’ support for a social safety net has diminished in recent years. Today, just 43% agree that government should help more needy people, even if it means going deeper in debt.”

What do you think about poverty and inequality? Do you agree with Nelson Mandela that  “dignity and a decent life” is a “fundamental human right?” Should we strengthen the social safety net? Do you agree with Senator Conrad that “the growing gap between the very wealthy and everyone else has serious ramifications for the country?” Or, do you agree with 52% of your fellow citizens that inequality is “an acceptable part of our economic system?” Offer your thoughts below, or at The Pub.