God, the American Dream and the Select Few

It’s not enough that the rich have co-opted the American Dream. Now they are trying to co-opt God. Forget all that stuff about the poor inheriting the earth, it being easier for a rich man to go through the eye of a needle than to get into Heaven, or that Christ tossed the usurers out of the temple–the rich are not worried.

Because they don’t believe it. They believe God is on their side. After all, He made them rich, didn’t he? And He lets the poor live in poverty, doesn’t he? Which obviously means He finds the poor undeserving. Old Rockefeller said “God gave me my money!” and it is more obvious than ever before that this is what the rich believe.

Until recently I had not realized how pervasive the idea of the deserving rich is in our society. I mean, I knew money bestowed power, but I had no idea it also created and supported such a belief system. For the very rich, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the after-tax income of the top one percent rose 228 percent from 1979 through 2005, while the earnings of men in their thirties, based on a study released by the Pew Charitable Trusts, have remained flat over the past four decades. Improvement in family incomes during that time has been mostly due to the increase of wives and mothers in the work force.

I guess you could blame my naivete on my birth as a member of the undeserving poor. I was born into coal, on the excavating side. My father was a coal miner for twenty-five years before he pursued the American Dream by getting out of coal to become a barber, upward mobility to much cleaner and less dangerous work. Meanwhile, families who had never seen a coal mine lived wealthy lives provided by royalties from coal while romping beneath the golden Sun on the French Riviera.

This belief system of the rich that God gave them their money works as well as it does because it is supported by other belief systems that are working in tandem. One, built around the theme of entitlement, inclines the believer to acept the rich’s approbation of themselves as deserving of their immense wealth because they think that with time and chance, they too can belong to the select few. Although the second group hasn’t yet arrived at the very top, they, like the rich, feel entitled to the best of everything. Based on what? Their looks, talent, intelligence, education? Culture? Their sparkling personality?

When my father died, my family was thrown into poverty. Despite how hard my older siblings worked to keep us together–warm, fed and clothed, I remember one day at school having nothing to eat for lunch and I hid from the other children until lunchtime was over so they wouldn’t know. I was ashamed of being hungry.

Except for a small group who provide much ammunition to the welfare critics, most of the poor do not feel entitled to anything, and even blame themselves for not doing better than they are. After all, this is America, land of opportunity and the American Dream. Or was. But even though the Dream has died for many, God cannot be co-opted. He lives within the heart of His people. His love shines on us all.

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5 Responses

  1. My question is, “who are these ‘rich’ people who have coopted God?” Peddlers of class envy would have us believe that membership in a particular income bracket is permanent yet, according to the IRS, there is tremendous income mobility in the U.S. (see report here: http://www.treasury.gov/press/releases/reports/incomemobilitystudyfinal.pdf). So if this year’s rich aren’t the same as last year’s rich, who’s coopting God?

    The few truly rich people I’ve met haven’t felt that they had God in their pocket – they felt grateful to God for the blessings that enabled them to have the security afforded by wealth and the opportunity to allocate money to the causes that they supported. My perspective is that, to the extent that there are people who feel that they’re rich because God wants them to be, they’re either right or they have a serious comeuppance in their future!

    One of the greatest things about the U.S. is that people really do have the opportunity to change their “station” in life – again, as evidenced by the IRS report. The possibility for the poor or middle-class to have a better future and for their kids to have a better future aren’t myths, but realistic aspirations.

  2. I would love to believe that you are right and I am wrong. But after much deliberation I must go by what I believe. However, I do want to make one correction in what you implied – I am not, and have never been, influenced by “peddlers of class envy”. The truth is I’ve often felt sympathy for the rich, and I’ve known a few, especially for those with great inherited wealth, for the plethora of choices that must confront them. But, whether you realize it or not, your use of this term reveals you’ve fallen into Republican-speak, using buzzwords such as “class warfare” or “class envy” to shoot down any discussion of the growing chasm between the rich and poor in this country.

    And of course the rich people you’ve known do not openly admit and most of them probably do not even think in such terms as “co-opting God” or that “God gave them their money”. They probably aren’t even aware of such thoughts. But what are their opinions of the poor? And why do so many of the ones who are captains of industry, while giving thanks to God for their increasing wealth, yet provide their workers with less than a living wage or else transfer their jobs overseas where slave labor is still the norm?

  3. I think there’s a point here that’s being missed in talking about mobility.

    Maybe an individual can rise to a new income bracket, but no matter how easily she does it, she does so only by leaving many behind in the lower brackets. People can rise only because there ARE all those at the bottom whose lack provides abundance for the rich. Interestingly, the earlier report on income disparity suggests that though people can move around inside the backets, the brackets themselves are not rising proportionately, so the poor today are poorer than the poor a decade ago.

    But I realize this is the basic unbridgeable philosophy in politics today: conservatives pushing individual freedom at the expense of social justice and liberals doing the reverse. I think I would be more supportive of the notion of “individual freedom” if I believed the culture it relies on did not hide systemic inequities; “freedom” should take into account that some people are more “free” to succeed than others. In any case, this simple difference makes the whole alignment of Christian-conservative truly bizarre to me, because Christianity is about justice not judgment, mercy not money, freedom of conscience not freedom of markets.

    But this strange Christian-conservative alliance gets weirder.

    You just have to look at the new “prosperity gospel” booming in this country, raking in tens of millions for postChristians like Osteen. These movements target evangelicals who traditionally support conservative platforms NOT because they provide individual freedoms in the economic realm but more often because they limit them in the social realm.

    What the hell is happening to Jesus when he is used to justify making gobs of money while condemning people who follow their consciences? Or maybe we should call him “Jeezus”. ( http://thepaincomics.com/weekly050504.htm ).

    When the IRS published a report on income disparity earlier this year, they said the richest are getting richer (top 1% made 21% of all income) and the poor not so much (bottom 50% make 12% of all income). Not since the Gilded Age have we seen those kinds of numbers, but Bush claimed it was a “skills gap” causing the problem. With the spin made about the numbers by every persuasion of pundit, I came to appreciate what the Cato Institute had to say:

    “In sum, studies based on tax return data provide highly misleading comparisons of changes to the U.S. income distribution because of dramatic changes in tax rules and tax reporting in recent decades.” ( http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=6880 )

  4. On Teresa’s points first:

    She says, “Maybe an individual can rise to a new income bracket, but no matter how easily she does it, she does so only by leaving many behind in the lower brackets. People can rise only because there ARE all those at the bottom whose lack provides abundance for the rich. Interestingly, the earlier report on income disparity suggests that though people can move around inside the backets, the brackets themselves are not rising proportionately, so the poor today are poorer than the poor a decade ago.”

    You look only at the upwardly mobile side of the equation – the IRS’s report shows that only 25% of those in the top 1% 10 years ago are still there, so there’s also downward mobility. Therefore, the person who rises doesn’t necessarily “leave behind” others, but may “exchange places” with someone who was in a higher quintile. The poor today ARE NOT poorer than a decade ago – in fact today’s poor are wealthier than ever before. The rich are also wealthier than ever before – the income inequality is higher – but that doesn’t make the poor poorer. The key points from the study I referenced previously:

    The key findings of this study include:
    • There was considerable income mobility of individuals in the U.S. economy during the 1996 through 2005 period with roughly half of taxpayers who began in the bottom quintile moving up to a higher income group within 10 years.
    • About 55 percent of taxpayers moved to a different income quintile within 10 years.
    • Among those with the very highest incomes in 1996 – the top 1/100 of 1 percent – only 25 percent remained in this group in 2005. Moreover, the median real income of these
    taxpayers declined over this period.
    • The degree of mobility among income groups is unchanged from the prior decade (1987 through 1996).
    • Economic growth resulted in rising incomes for most taxpayers over the period from 1996 to 2005. Median incomes of all taxpayers increased by 24 percent after adjusting for inflation. The real incomes of two-thirds of all taxpayers increased over this period. In addition, the median incomes of those initially in the lower income groups increased more than the median incomes of those initially in the higher income groups.

    She says, “this simple difference makes the whole alignment of Christian-conservative truly bizarre to me, because Christianity is about justice not judgment, mercy not money, freedom of conscience not freedom of markets.”

    The alignment of social and fiscal conservatives may seem bizarre to you, but, even when defined in your choice of terms, it is certainly no more bizarred than FDR’s Democrat coalition of socialists, populists, and racists. From within the coalition, I can say that it makes perfect sense that those who believe in individual freedom also believe in individual responsibility. There is no justice without judgment (though Christians believe that there will be Justice on Judgment Day), a wealthy nation has more to offer in mercy than a poor one (though one can be merciful without money), and one cannot be selective about what freedoms to guarantee without imperiling freedom for all. The biggest danger to the U.S. is not an attack from without, but the ever-decreasing space for a civil society that is being squeezed out by an ever larger government.

    To Amanda’s points:
    I did not mean to imply that you were a peddler or were influenced by peddlers of class envy. My point was simply that the peddlers would have us believe that membership in a particular income bracket is permanent when it’s not.

    Insofar as “falling into Republican speak”, I plead guilty to using a somewhat cliched line, but I did so knowingly. I agree with both the description and the sentiment. I have little time for hacks like Al Sharpton or John Edwards (et al, ad nauseum), who seek to embitter and divide Americans through the blatant misuse of facts and dissemination of half-truths for their personal agenda and gain. I view them as nothing more than leaches on the American body-politic. They solve no problems and they help nobody. They sow discontent and then grow fat feeding on the dissatisfaction – that’s why they’re so wealthy.

    Amanda says, “And why do so many of the ones who are captains of industry, while giving thanks to God for their increasing wealth, yet provide their workers with less than a living wage or else transfer their jobs overseas where slave labor is still the norm?”

    There are a couple of points here. Taking the last point first, while there is some slave labor still extant in the world (e.g. China) , for the most part, that isn’t a factor in the production of goods for the U.S. market.

    Second, please define “a living wage”. As already observed, today’s poor are richer than yesterday’s poor by a long shot (compare possessions, periods of hunger, whatever you like). While more families “have” to have two working parents (according to the news), most of those classified as poor in America today are poor because parents divorce – thereby doubling the bills without doubling the income. (This also provides part of the income mobility figures in the lower quintiles – divorcing parents move down, while remarrying parents move back up). Meanwhile the average poor family owns their own home, has 2 cars, TVs, VCRs, etc. Forty years ago only 7% of ALL households had air conditioning – today 96% of POOR households have air conditioning. Please define a living wage.

    I don’t want to conclude this by simply refuting the points of others. Nor do I think that poverty, less Dickensian than before though it be, is insignificant. I think that America can do better than we have for all of our citizens. The solution, however, lies not in dragging the “rich” down or in starting additional government programs. The answer lies in allowing the American people the freedom to make their own decisions and allowing them to keep as much of the money that they’ve earned as is possible.

    The word “Capitalism” was coined by Karl Marx as a disparaging term which was essentially the opposite of Socialism. Yet Capitalism (free enterprise) has created more wealth in a shorter time and raised more people out of squalor than any other organizing principle in history. Not only do I not believe it to be incompatible with Christianity, I think that, as a system to harness the limited powers that God gave man, it provides the best hope for man on Earth. Though I am a Catholic, I was raised in Protestant America, and embedded in my soul is the conviction that God helps those who help themselves – prayer is necessary, but so is effort. Free enterprise, while certain to create unequal results (income inequality) based on the ability, will, and effort of individuals, provides (as JFK said) a “tide that lifts all boats” – assuming that we don’t anchor the boats to a stationary dock or become so preoccupied with sinking the yachts that we run ashore.

  5. The pockets of poverty in this country are very real but averages can hide their stark reality due to the large numbers we are dealing with. One of the worse, of course, is in Appalachia, especially in large portions of Kentucky and West Virginia where mountaintop removal has cast such a blight on the land it looks from the air as though it’s been bombed–and it might as well have been–as the coal companies blasts the tops off the mountains in order to scoop out the coal, pushing the waste into the valleys and streams. Some of the needed restrictions created by the Clean Water Act were removed by the Bush administration at the request of the coal industry–known as King Coal for a reason.

    The wealth and huge profits of Peabody Coal and Massey Energy is nothing less than obscene when you look at the devastation they are leaving behind. Even though the coal industry has reaped billions of dollars in revenue, Peabody Energy reported $5.2 billion in revenue for 2006, the coal regions have some of the worst poverty in the country, where more than a quarter of families live below the poverty line. Please read “Coal’s Ascent is Igniting a Debate” by John Donnelly in the Boston Globe on 12/26/07. As for the living wage, visit http://www.povertyinamerica.psu.edu/ a site of Penn State and consult their Living Wage Calculator, all components of which have been inflated to 2004 dollars (from 2000) using the Consumer Price Index.

    There are other pockets of poverty in our society that are buried in the figures you quote. But the rape of Appalachia is one injustice I know something about, and in my opinion it has given a black eye to our beloved country. This kind of thing needs to be stopped.

    I agree with you that there are politicians, and others, who seek to divide us for their own agenda or personal gain, and we can’t let them succeed. But, at the same time we should not turn a blind eye to the growing problem of inequality in our society or pretend it doesn’t exist. We’ve come a long way as a nation but we still have work to do.

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