The Poor Get Poorer

Children eat breakfast at the Baltimore Catholic Charities Head Start program in Edgewood, Maryland. (CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)
Children eat breakfast at the Baltimore Catholic Charities Head Start program in Edgewood, Maryland. (CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)
First, a heartwarming story out of Boston.

Glen James, a homeless man in his 50s, was walking through a parking lot when he noticed a black bag. Curious, he opened it, and what he found was astonishing. According to the Boston Globe, inside was $2,400 in cash, $40,000 in traveler’s checks, a passport, and some personal papers. James could have used the money to find a place to live or buy the essentials that many of us take for granted. Instead, he did what all of us should do: He turned the bag over to the police.

“Even if I were desperate for money, I would not have kept even a penny of the money found,” he said Monday in a handwritten statement. “God has always very well looked after me.”

The Boston Police Department took note, and James was honored with a citation. Commissioner Ed Davis highlighted his “extraordinary show of character and honesty.” And, according to NPR, an online fund has raised more than $64,000 for James as a sort of reward for his altruism. The missing money, by the way, belonged to a visiting student from China and it’s been returned to its owner.

Now some not so good news.

Forbes magazine released its annual rankings of America’s richest billionaires, and it comes down to this, from the AP: “Basically, the mega rich are mega richer,’’ according to Forbes Senior Editor Kerry Dolan.

The average net worth for those on the list is $5 billion, rising from $4.2 billion is 2012. As the economic crisis recovers, the wealthy are seeing their income adjust accordingly, and as a result:

According to a study of Internal Revenue Service figures released last week, the top 1 percent of U.S. earners collected 19.3 percent of household income in 2012, their largest share in IRS figures going back a century.

U.S. income inequality has been growing for almost three decades. But until last year, the top 1 percent’s share of pre-tax income had not yet surpassed the 18.7 percent it reached in 1927, according to the analysis done by economists at the University of California, Berkeley, the Paris School of Economics and Oxford University.

Now I don’t call attention to this extraordinary wealth to begrudge those who have money. Having spent a few years working in the nonprofit sector, I see firsthand the immense good that wealthy individuals create with their financial resources. The problem is, as the upper class gobbles up more of the nation’s wealth, the middle class is being depleted and the working class falls further behind.

According to the Center for American Progress, the past decade hasn’t been at all kind to household incomes, with medians falling from just over $56,000 in 1998 to just over $51,000 today. Only the highest fifth of Americans saw their income rise since the recession, and the percentage of income going to the middle class has steadily declined since the 1960s. Back then, it was about 53%, while today it’s only 45%.

The effects of not having enough money are startling on health, education, and family.

This week, the Atlantic reports that poverty has a tremendously negative impact on one’s ability to parent effectively:

This is a part of the centripetal spiral of poverty in America – where being poor makes one less likely to marry and less likely to have the resources and time to devote to childcare. This, in turn, makes the child less likely to advance and more likely to slip into the same multi-generational spiral.

The journal Science suggests that those living in poverty often lack the mental energy needed to make good life decisions, because “poverty-related concerns consume mental resources leaving less for other tasks.”

For children, the effects can be devastating. Which percentage of children lives in poverty in the United States, the richest nation on Earth? 5%? 10? 20? Nope. A staggering 21.8% of children under 18 live in poverty in the United States, meaning that “children continue to be America’s poorest people — and the younger they are, the worse off they are.”

Sr. Simone Campbell, of Nuns on the Bus fame, writes at Reuters that there is a way to alleviate poverty, but notes that the government can’t seem to get its act together. She writes:

Programs like SNAP, EITC, the Child Tax Credit, Medicaid, CHIP, housing assistance and child care assistance do a tremendous amount of good. By adequately funding these programs we reduce poverty and help families make ends meet. We provide healthcare that saves lives; support working parents; reduce hunger and improve health; stabilize children’s lives and improve school performance. In short, we make our nation better.

But, hey, if all this has you down, Powerball’s jackpot is more than $400 million this week. It won’t get you into Forbes, as 61 billionaires didn’t make the cut, but good luck.

For more on the Catholic Church’s effort to fight poverty in the United States, visit Catholic Charities USA and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development’s Poverty USA.