Saturday, February 1, 2014

Inequality begins at home

Some conservative Christians defend the “right-to-life” in the narrow context of the abortion debate. While many infants and young American children live in poverty, critics suggest too many anti-choice advocates believe the right-to-life begins at conception but ends at birth.

Pope Francis, who suggested the church shouldn’t be focused on narrow social issues like abortion, has taken a bolder stance. “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.”

The pope singled out “trickle-down” tax and spending policies, saying the theory never worked, that it “expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

Globally, the pope should speak out because inequality is not only a political issue. It is also a spiritual matter. The Credit Suisse Research Institute reports the richest 0.5 percent of adults pocket more than a third of the world’s wealth. The pope’s global view isn’t necessary to see the truth on which his statement depends. Look closer. Look at Cheyenne and the impact of economic inequality on our neighbors.

The problem is demonstrated graphically by the New York Times’ “Mapping Poverty in America.” The Times has mined statistics from the US Census Bureau to show the geography of poverty.

The nation’s poverty rate is 15%. Wyoming’s poverty rate is 12.6%. Parts of Cheyenne are much higher, parts much lower. According to the poverty map, the rate in one neighborhood southwest of Campstool Road exceeds 22%. Moving north, poverty declines from 15% west of Logan and above 10% east of Logan until you cross Pershing, which appears to be the great divide.

North of Pershing the rate drops precipitously with the exception of a neighborhood east of Ridge Road between Pershing and Dell Range where it skyrockets to 19.5%. Other north-side neighborhoods drop to 8% and then 6% as you move the cursor north. In the area north and west, the rate drops to 2.6%.

If you’ve lived here any time at all, you wouldn’t be surprised by some disparity from neighborhood to neighborhood. But the NY Times map shows the poverty rate triples from one side of Ridge Road to the other, doubles when you walk across Pershing, a phenomenon begging an explanation in a community as small as Cheyenne.

It’s not because people aren’t working hard. Laramie County’s unemployment rate has fallen to 4.5%, a little less than half the national rate. About 10% of Laramie County adults are working multiple jobs to make ends meet.

The problem for most is not unemployment but underemployment; low wages not work ethic. A professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has created a “Living Wage Calculator.” Using local community data to estimate a living wage for families of various sizes in any given community, the “Living Wage Calculator” determined the wage necessary for a single parent raising two children in Cheyenne to meet basic living costs to be $21.23 per hour.

Meeting basic costs of a family this size requires a post-taxes monthly income of $3,283. ( Jobs many single parents have, e.g. food preparation and service, sales, office administration, healthcare support, and building maintenance pay a fraction of that amount, explaining why half of all young Wyoming children residing with a single parent are living in poverty.

Trickle-down policies drawing the pope’s ire include cuts in food stamps, opposition to both minimum wage increases and repealing the tip credit, tax breaks for the wealthy, denial of Medicaid expansion, refusal of Congress and the legislature to continue benefits for long-term unemployed workers, and failure to create new jobs rebuilding the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.

There are too many with too much at stake in making certain that inequality grows. Poverty is good for the bottom line of some. Trickle-down economics meet someone’s needs, just not those of the poor.

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