Poverty and Morality in America Gerry O’Shea
Americans are renowned as pragmatic men and women who have led the world in getting things done. They are practical people who focus less on theorizing and concentrate instead on achieving visible results. According to this narrative, Europeans strut their leadership in the areas of great art and literature, but they are behind in the world of business led by the aggressive economic strategies nurtured by Wall Street.
From this philosophical perspective, nothing can be deemed true unless it is seen to work. For the pragmatist results define success in all dimensions of living.
What does this approach reveal about the problem of poverty in America? How do our results in this crucial area compare to other developed countries?
From this pragmatic perspective Americans are trailing all western European countries in their meagre efforts to ameliorate the situation of millions of poor people living in dire circumstances throughout the United States.
Advocates of the American Dream point to the many rags-to- riches stories, and they claim these as proof of a successful anti-poverty program. Everybody applauds the diligent work habits of the self-made man or woman, but what about the millions who have been left behind, despite working long hours. The national minimum wage has not changed from $7.25 an hour since 2009.
According to the prevailing wisdom of many in the affluent community, the struggling poor do not deserve special consideration because they are responsible for their own plight.
Even measly welfare payments are often viewed grudgingly as handouts to lazy or lethargic recipients who, somehow, should be making their own way independent of government subsidies. Ronald Reagan shamefully introduced Americans to what he dubbed welfare queens, who, according to this fake imagery, live handsomely off the fat of the land, allegedly covered by large weekly payouts from the government.
He ran for the presidency in 1980 focusing on reducing the tax rate for workers not by lessening the bloated defense budget or by insisting that millionaires pay their fair share but by pointing the finger of blame at imaginary poor black women who were supposedly bleeding the system.
Most theologians and biblical scholars reject this uncaring approach and raise the vital moral issue of why a society tolerates serious levels of hunger at a time of material abundance.
The millions of hungry families in the richest country in the world are told that they live in the land of the free and the home of the brave and that they should be grateful and get on with fending for themselves.
The ethical mandates in both sacred testaments, stretching from Genesis to the crucifixion on Calvary, are clear about community responsibility for minimizing poverty. Isaiah demanded “share your food with the hungry and provide the wanderer with shelter,” and Jeremiah, the prophet of doom, condemned those who “oppress the poor and needy and deprive them of justice.” And Amos, an inspired shepherd, excoriated those in his community “who oppress the needy and the poor and deprive them of justice.”
This biblical theme which prioritizes the vulnerable and indigent must be assessed in the light of American culture that is commonly identified as Judeo-Christian. Marjorie Taylor Green leads a growing coterie of Republicans in Congress promoting Christian nationalism as the best ideology for the country. The presumed attachment here to a Christian model of government, respecting the Sermon on the Mount, should augur well for citizens living on the margins.
Regrettably, the Christian nationalist rhetoric never even mentions alleviating poverty as a desirable goal. Instead, they are comfortable walking in the company of the white supremacists, joined by clusters of antisemites and anti-Muslims.
According to the data provided by the Organization of Economic and Community Development (OECD), the child poverty level in the United States was rated a dismal 31st out of 34. The same organization publishes the percentage of poor people in the entire population of each member country. The most recent numbers claim that 15.1% of Americans live in poverty just behind Turkey at 15.0%. The United Kingdom comes in at 11.2%, France at 8.4%, Ireland at 7.4% and Finland at 5.7%.
As part of the American Rescue Plan in 2021, the United States created a universal child allowance for the first time which was paid in the form of a monthly Child Tax Credit. The champions of the payment, including President Biden, pointed to the dramatic reduction of child poverty as a result of this progressive policy which provided parents with $300 a month for children under the age of six and $250 for older ones.
These generous payments helped to cut child poverty in half and achieve the lowest rate for children in the history of the United States. It brought the poverty rate in line with Germany’s, cutting dramatically food hardship among families with children – a major humanitarian success story.
Most conservatives expressed their disapproval because they felt that the payments might deter low-income earners from going to their often-menial jobs, feeling they would be seduced by the soft lifestyle associated with government subsidies. They also felt that the families might hoard or misspend the money.
These fears of welfare abuse were professionally examined throughout the country and found to be baseless. The reduction in family poverty was real and acclaimed by social scientists as a dramatic success story especially helpful for working mothers. Directly related to this monthly child-support check, family poverty in America in 2021 dropped a whopping 46%.
Congress had to approve the continuation of this tried and tested anti-poverty program. Nearly all Democrats supported it as expected but every single congressional Republican voted no and the program lost funding. The Census Bureau has since revealed that child poverty rates have spun up again by 41% in 2022 since the Child Tax Credit was terminated.
It is sadly ironic and indeed paradoxical that the avowedly pro-life party rejected a proven anti-poverty program that especially benefited struggling mothers with young children. No public protest was heard from leading Protestant evangelists or Catholic archbishops who evidently did not see any contradiction between their vociferous support for life in the womb with their blind failure to confront the indignity of ending the Child Tax Credit.
Addressing this issue lately in an emotional speech, Senator Cory Booker from New Jersey termed the abandonment of the poor in America as “moral violence.” Where is the modern pragmatic American who will lead the urgent moral crusade to lift the approximately fifty million Americans living below the poverty line? Do we have a modern Isaiah or Jeremiah or Amos to lead us away from the moral degeneration evident in this vital dimension of American culture?
Gerry OShea blogs at wemustbetalking.com