Reasons Income Inequality Isn’t the Real Problem

[My posts on money seem to be striking a chord (though I surely write it better than I live it), but nonetheless, here is something I’ve been reflecting on in light of the Occupy Wall Street Movement and also from my readings in  A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby K. Payne.]

The Occupy Movement was about righteous indignation at the loads of wealth hoarded by the top 1% of earners (or trust fund recipients) and the resulting disparity between those top haves the bottom 99% of have nots. It’s reasonable, isn’t it, to assert that it is unfair for so few people to have so much when so many people have so little.

The stereotypical (read somewhat satirized) conservative response is that huge wealth earners have legitimately earned their wealth and therefore deserve to keep it, society be damned. And there is something to that, though to ignorance the need of our fellow man is reprehensible.

But reality check time: It’s not really between the 99% and the 1%. It may be, if the stats are accurate, that 1% of people have 99% of America’s wealth, but it is not the case that 99% of America is impoverished or even lower middle class. I’m no sociologist, but there’s an upper 5%, 10% etc etc if we measure by standard of living rather than by percent of money owned.

The point is that wealth, as measured by standard of living or human flourishing, is about a lot more than money. In A Framework for Understanding Poverty, Payne identifies 8 different types of resources, only one of which is financial:

1. Financial Resources – Having the money to purchase goods and services

2. Emotional Resources – Being able to choose and control emotional responses, particularly to negative situations, without engaging in self-destructive behavior. This is an internal resource and shows itself through stamina, perseverance, and choices.

3. Mental Resources – Having the mental abilities and acquired skills (reading, writing, computing) to deal with daily life.

4. Spiritual Resources – Believing in divine purpose and guidance.

5. Physical Resources – Having physical health and mobility

6.  Support Systems – Having friends, family, and back-up resources available to access in times of need. These are external resources.

7. Relationships & Role Models: Having frequent access to adult(s) who are appropriate, who are nurturing to the child, and who do not engage in self-destructive behavior.

8. Knowledge of Hidden Rules: Knowing the unspoken cues and habits of a group. (p. 9)

As becomes immediately obvious when reading this list, wealth is about a lot more than money. The middle and upper classes have a deep internal and social safety net that they can draw on even when money is tight. What Payne goes on to explain in the book is how lacking other resources besides money is a key component that makes breaking out of generational poverty so very difficult. The hard thing about reading this book is that it offers a window through which to view how dire the struggles of the impoverished really are. And there are no easy answers.

But one bright side also shines through: that having a good life is about a lot more than money. In fact, it’s possible to have a dignified, rooted, loving life without a ton of money–provided that we have the other resources around such as emotional resources, mental resources, spiritual, relational, etc.

I think this is a helpful reminder of what really matters. Walter White in Breaking Bad makes a fortune in drug money but squanders his other resources in the process. The result isn’t a good one.

One aspect of the Occupy Wallstreet movement and many of the other social justice statistics out there is the emphasis on where the wealth is, an easily measurable point: what percent of people hold how much. And it won’t be fair until everyone has the exact same amount–sort of like Communism.

And there is something to that. Money matters; it makes things easier; it is a powerful tool towards a decent life. So having a more even spread isn’t a bad idea. But I worry that this approach over emphasizes money at the expense of lifestyle and other resources.

John Paul II said in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus:

It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards “having” rather than “being”, and which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself.

In short, if we get too caught up in the money alone question, we tend to send the same bad message to both rich and poor people: only the amount of money that you have matters. How you live and how you spend don’t matter.

An article by Gisela Bernardes Solymos asks: “This brings us to the following questions: what promotes the awareness of who we are? How can we experience dignity again? How can we overcome poverty?”

Overcoming poverty is going to be about a lot more than money. It’s going to mean engagement on an individual, personal, emotional level. It’s going to mean offering those other, non-monetary resources to people who don’t have them. Helping people in need requires more than writing a check, more than a numbers comparison, it’s about seeing ourselves on the same plane as just humans in need of different things. Sometimes money can blind us to that human equality. I’m pretty sure that’s why Jesus talks about money so much– “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matt. 19:24). He tells us to love our neighbors, who he defines pretty widely in the story of the Good Samaritan; He wants us to love one another as human beings no matter who has more or less earthly belongings or status.

I know I fall short here–a lot. I need a good deal of grace. But there is a converse to this that I do relate to and which I think needs to be emphasized as a counterpoint to Occupy type of reasoning: we don’t have to hate or blame rich people. We shouldn’t even be jealous of them. A person with a lot of money is just a person with different struggles. Money is money; people are people.

Are there moral pitfalls of a wealthy lifestyle? Undoubtedly. But a wealthy person can indeed help steward his or her wealth well for the sake of the betterment of the community; he or she might very well be poor-in-spirit and quite virtuous. And here I’ll turn to Downton Abbey, always a *classy* show, but it has a bit of serious content. One of the most endearing facets of Lord Grantham, the earl of the estate, is his genuine concern for his staff, his farmers and the townsfolk in general. He pays for his cook to have an eye operation she can’t afford. One of the biggest developments between Lord Grantham and Tom Branson, the left-leaning driver turned to son-in-law, is Tom’s gradual learning that all this wealth and estate aren’t mere unjust waste–Lord Grantham actually serves to steward the property and household for the sake of the very people who work it, not just for himself and his high-class daughters. Only someone who has a lot of resources is in a position to offer those resources to others.

Now, certainly not all wealthy people meet such a standard, but it is possible. As I’ve said elsewhere, it is possible and actually good for people to be equal and not be the same. We don’t have to all have the same things and live the same way or have the same amount of money in order to be equal or to live dignified, decent lives. The farmer and the Earl of Downton Abbey can both flourish in a meaningful way. My three-bedroom, one-story house is a lot less than some of my friends have and a lot more than some of them have. This needn’t be cause for awkwardness or embarrassment. Sometimes I need help; sometimes I can offer help.

So meeting the needs of the truly impoverished is about helping them get all their human needs met and bringing more factors into play than the checkbook alone. It’s a big task to help propel another soul up to the level of dignity and decency with so many complex structures in place; but at the same time, dignity and decency matter in a way that reminds us of our shared humanity, and if we can get everyone to that point, differences between country clubs and community parks fade into the background. (For instance, if we really saw each other as equally valuable, maybe the country club members might open it up to those who can’t afford it…)

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2 thoughts on “Reasons Income Inequality Isn’t the Real Problem

  1. I love that you situate material wealth as one of many aspects of true wealth. It leads me to consider why many of the urban poor are impoverished in many ways. A few guesses:

    -Parent(s) often work evenings and weekends, minimizing time they can invest in building family identity with children (lack of emotional resources, relationships and role models). They cannot help with homework or have informal conversations to build vocabulary (falling behind on mental resources). They barely earn enough to make it (financial resources).

    -Children miss their parents and form unusually strong bonds with peers, in contradistinction to adult authority figures (lack of good role models)

    -Teachers of these children burn out, trying to both educate and parent (undermines mental resources, since early education is disjointed)

    -High teacher turnover reinforces sense of exclusion and undermines trust, and children bond with peers over the shared hurt, anger, and mistrust. They feel a lack of social resources: working family, no money to help out, no consistent role model.

    -Children, now adolescents, often (though a majority do not) engage in antisocial or criminal behavior in retribution for feeling invisible. This also provides them with a sense of social resources, since people in a gang are fiercely loyal to one another.

    -A neighborhood culture of fear is established, undermining community and disrupting healthy social resources.

    -If an impoverished adolescent falls ill, he is more likely to be undertreated due to lack of good health insurance. (Physical resources)

    -An acute awareness of the myriad dimensions in which he has been denied due to social class leads to obsession with money that overwhelms spiritual reflection. He doubts God because he has seen people get shot, he has been attacked, his family has been pulled apart by financial stress. An early establishment of insecurity and distrust marks a severe road block to spiritual trust and liberation.

    So at which point do the fortunate members of the middle and upper class intervene to break the cycle? Paying workers more so they can spend more time with family? Ensuring that good teachers are retained at high poverty schools? Investing in ministry for inner city kids? Or providing white collar on-the-job training for low income adolescents?

  2. Pingback: This Thanksgiving: Indiffernce Might be Ingratitude (Even For Material Objects) | Stephanie Pacheco

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