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feature: politics & culture
May 21st, 2014

The Ways Wealth Is Becoming America’s True Master

 
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Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” Matthew 6:24

America’s first two Anglo settlements were Jamestown, Virginia, and Plymouth, Massachusetts. The first was a business founded by the Virginia Company of London that mentioned God in its charter as an afterthought. Plymouth, in contrast, was a group of pilgrims hoping to find spiritual refuge. Since the 1600s, the United States has wrestled between its love of God and money. Unfortunately, today it seems the pursuit of wealth is winning America’s heart while God is becoming more of an afterthought.

Take the following:

Child poverty

According to a recent Washington Post article, the United States ranks just above Romania in children living below the poverty line. The richest country on earth ranks below Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Hungary in terms of childhood poverty. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 22% of children (greater than one-in-five) live below the poverty line, and these numbers have only grown over the last four decades. Could there be a more brutal examination of this country’s heart?

There are almost daily reports about the new wealthy in Silicon Valley or billionaire hedge fund managers buying extravagant homes, yet one in five children will go to bed tonight living in anonymous poverty. Last year, while speaking in an Italian municipality, Pope Francis said, “The world had become an idolater of this god called money,” adding, “men and women have to be at the center as God wants, not money.” The pope’s comments reflect how dire the situation has become, where economies across the world recognize those who have achieved great wealth without recognizing how many are suffering.

American citizens are comfortable with politicians calling this the greatest nation on earth, but would the greatest nation on earth be comfortable with more than 20 percent of its children being poor? The Bible does not ascribe greatness to the wealthy; quite the opposite. When Peter was charged as the head of the Church, he almost immediately made the following statement to a beggar: “I do not possess silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you.” Peter’s strength, and the Church’s strength, has always been demonstrated through love, not financial gain.

Welfare

While child poverty might be obvious, there is another topic that may seem partisan, but it reflects the hearts of Democrats and Republicans, and the Church as a whole: people of both parties and all denominations and faiths have voted for candidates who have cut welfare. While in office, President Bill Clinton (Democrat) cut welfare on the federal level in an historic way. As a governor and president, Ronald Reagan (Republican) cut into and spoke out against welfare whenever he had the opportunity. President Jimmy Carter (Democrat) proposed monumental cuts to welfare while he was president.

Yet when banks needed a taxpayer-subsidized handout in 2008, there was the President of the United States (a Republican and son of a Republican president) handing out $700 billion to a handful of banks. Arguments can be made as to how dire things may have gotten in the United States had the government not done this, but why does the federal government value the well-being of banks over the well-being of its poorest citizens? U.S. Congressman Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin and former Vice-Presidential nominee, submitted a Congressional budget this year that proposed more than $700 billion in cuts to Medicaid and $1 trillion in cuts to programs like food stamps and college grants. The poor sit back and watch social programs get slashed, while both political parties give billions of dollars to companies, taking that money from taxpayers. Corporate tax breaks on the state and local level reached more than $100 billion in 2014, and the Cato Institute estimates that the federal government gives roughly another $100 billion in corporate subsidies every year. Every year, the top five oil companies (ExxonMobil, BP, ConocoPhillips, Chevron, and Shell) get billions in combined tax breaks. The total value of those five oil companies alone is more than $1.7 trillion.

Turning from love of money

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says, “…where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Americans struggle with this, the battle between prosperity and spirituality. It’s in our bones to buy a house, have a retirement account, and drive a nice car. Many of Jesus’ teachings cut to the core of our nation’s history. We sing of freedom, but millions of children are oppressed by poverty. We believe we have a Christian heritage, but our heritage includes endorsing slavery as a way of driving the economy.

Yet, there is hope. While we are called a nation of consumers, we were also founded to be a “city upon a hill.” While there are Christian spiritual leaders who claim wealth is a sign of godliness, we have been blessed with a pope who is unafraid of turning the Church’s attention to the neediest among us, a pope who said, “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.” Pope Francis’ words cut right to the heart of it, that Americans must not value corporations above humanity. When Wall Street seemed to rule America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, God raised up political, cultural and spiritual leaders to free the nation from this bondage.

Today, leaders like Kendall Fells are taking on billion-dollar corporations to help working people get a living wage. Politicians like Senator Elizabeth Warren are standing in the gap between the working poor and the 1%. Isaiah 59:19 says when the enemy comes in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him. It seems at a moment when the United States is struggling with wealth and purity of heart, God is raising up champions who want to protect America’s spiritual ideals even if it’s at the expense of its wealth.

 
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The Author : Joe Marchelewski
Joseph Marchelewski lives in Los Angeles with his wife Elizabeth and their 2-year-old son. In addition to being a media consultant, he's been published in various magazines, blogs and newspapers across the country.
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  • Pat Brown

    Joe, I am afraid that your politics are overshadowing your faith, at least as presented in this article. It is absolutely true that Americans worship wealth, and many of our separated Christian brothers see financial abundance as “proof” of God’s love. And children need love and attention, in addition to food and housing and a decent education. Your error is believing that the federal government has the duty or ability to solve these problems. The VAST amount of child poverty is related to children who are born outside of marriage to young and uneducated women….while the “fathers” disappear after conception. THIS lack of love, respect, and faithfulness is the root of a problem no government can solve….only the Church and its unfailing message of respect for life, respect for the human body, and respect for the family as the center of a child’s life. Don’t but your “faith” in lying politicians, especially ones who think that killing the unborn is a great way to reduce child poverty…….I will be praying for your wisdom to increase.

  • DHFabian

    Bill Clinton didn’t “cut welfare.” He ended both General Assistance aid and AFDC, cash aid programs. TANF is a marginally subsidized, short-term job program for those who have minor children. The last welfare check was issued in 1996. Food stamps/Medicaid are for the elderly, disabled and working poor. For the jobless whose UI expires, and many of the unemployable, there are jails or the morgue. Just as importantly, this generation embraced hostility (hate) toward the poor, solely because they are poor. We know that not everyone can work, due to health or circumstances, and that there simply aren’t jobs for all who urgently need one. America said, “Tough.” Even liberals chose to deal with hunger and homelessness by ignoring it.

  • https://www.facebook.com/nursecarl Carl Sobrado

    @lingvistika:disqus: “There are many stupid things about this article, and the writer needs to educate himself better.”

    First of all, how about showing a little respect around here. Try “There are many things about this article I disagree with.”

    You also missed the whole point of the argument.

  • lingvistika

    There are many stupid things about this article, and the writer needs to educate himself better.

    The Washington Post article claiming the US falls behind Romania in the number of children living in poverty covers a UN study that plays a statistical trick. The UN study defines “poverty” as living in a household that earns less than half nation’s median income. The median household income in the US is currently about $52,000, meaning that a child lives in “poverty” if his family makes less than 26,000 a year. There are places in the US where you can live a dignified life on that salary, but not Mr. Marchelewski’s home of Los Angeles.

    Meanwhile, according to the UN study, the child’s household wouldn’t qualify as “poor” until its yearly income falls below $4,600 or so. Some costs in Romania will be proportionately lower, but not all of them. Anyone who has lived in Eastern Europe knows that the average “poor” person in America lives at a material level approximately equal to a middle-class person in that part of the world. And the poor in Eastern Europe are EXTREMELY poor. In some countries of that region, you can’t qualify for welfare unless you own virtually nothing but the clothes on your back and a toothbrush. One family I knew had to sell their radio to qualify.

    The Washington Post article also does not say whether the study counts things like supplemental food assistance (which even many employed Americans get) as part of the family’s household income. Probably not, because there are statistics to show that through federal assistance, an American earning $27,000 can do materially better than someone making $40,000. Below a certain salary level, it pays to work less in the US. Talk to some of the working poor, and you’ll find that to them the real fat cats are the people on public assistance. There’s a big spiritual battle in some of them as to whether they should work for their money and live in dignified poverty or cave in, work less, take money they didn’t work for and live in what from their perspective looks like minor luxury.

    Another thing the author forgets is that the welfare cuts made by presidents and Congress in the past largely resulted from work requirements and limitations on the length of time an able-bodied person can stay on public assistance. Mr. Marchelewski is undoubtedly too young to remember when the US once had a permanent able-bodied idle class that stayed on welfare for generations. The legislation under Reagan and Clinton was intended to help alleviate this problem. Forcing, or even just encouraging people to live productive lives is going
    to result in many of them going off welfare, ergo less money paid out in
    public assistance. Even now welfare provides incentives not to work, not to marry, to bear children out of wedlock, and live in still more ways that damage the social fabric and people’s moral and spiritual well-being.

    There’s no time to pick apart the rest of the article. Suffice it to say that it’s based on buggy data and does not consider the motivation or context of those welfare cuts.

    • DHFabian

      Poverty rates in the US are determined on a state-by-state and county-by-county basis. The “poverty line” designates the minimum amount of money required to cover basic food, shelter and utilities. The US shipped out a huge number of working class jobs since the 1980s, and then ended welfare aid in the 1990s, increasing the number of people desperate for any job at any wage. This made it easy to lower/freeze wages for years, falling well behind the cost of living — resulting in the huge growth of the working poor. An entire portion of the workforce can barely meet basic needs, having to skip meals, etc. Extreme poverty in the US, which had been virtually ended by 1980, has soared since 2000. In fact, the overall life expectancy of America’s poor has already fallen by 5-6 years just since 1996. It’s true that today’s Eastern Europe is suffering much of the same poverty as the US. I know from personal experience that, of course, there are many people in every US city who honestly have nothing more than the clothes on their back, and who have been reduced to finding food scraps in dumpsters. Americans got very, very tough on the poor. This prolonged economic downturn has been international. The poor in most of Europe are doing far better than those in the US.

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