Stand in Solidarity With the Poor

Most people are probably not surprised to hear that Mississippi is a poor state. We routinely are on or near the bottom in every economic indicator. We are so poor, in fact, that we rely on the federal government to send all sorts of resources into our state--even as both U.S. senators and most of our representatives talk a good game about being against the federal taxes that pay for all that pork. It's anti-tax rhetoric with irony dripping all over it.

But what most people may not know is that while the poor are getting poorer in Mississippi--in no small part due to the loss of so many manufacturing jobs in recent decades--the rich are getting richer. The gap between the rich and poor in the state has widened dramatically over the last decade.

In last week's issue, we reported findings by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in its study "Pulling Apart: A State-by-State Analysis of Income Trends." It showed that, even through the recent recession, the richest 20 percent of Mississippians have gotten richer--their income increased 19.1 percent. At the same time, middle-class Mississippians' income dropped 5.4 percent, and the poorest 20 percent fell 17.3 percent (even as many vote to help the rich get richer).

These are jarring numbers--and they should give every one of us pause. We know that times are tough in America, especially since the great crash of 2008. We know many companies aren't hiring and, in fact, are laying off. We know that corporations are moving jobs overseas. We know that we have two wars to pay for even as the wealthiest Americans have enjoyed a tax cut that has not helped with job creation, which was the excuse for it.

But to sit in the poorest state and watch our wealthiest 20 percent get richer while our middle-class and poor residents suffer? This is unconscionable, even if you're one of the lucky ones whose income has increased while your neighbors' or your workers' income has shrunk.

Even if that doesn't concern you morally, it should make you worry societally. The growing income gap in American, which is at emergency levels in Mississippi, hurts the entire state. It damages social cohesion, it increases the incidence of crime, and it makes it harder for hard-working people to lift themselves out of poverty. It even means, as the report warned, that hard work isn't valued because people can't make ends meet.

Not to mention, many of the people on the wrong end of this gap can't afford health care. They don't (yet) have insurance coverage and, even if they do, they can barely afford the multiple bills you get simply due to having a twisted ankle examined. People who can't get medical and preventive care are most likely to stay poor. That might mean cheap labor for all the people on the winning end of this gap, but it doesn't make for a strong work force, and the resulting high turnover hurts any business.

The first question to ask yourself this holiday season is whether you care about this widening gap. Do you care enough to demand that Mississippi's leaders start supporting policies to help more than the richest 20 percent? Do you care enough to support an intelligent tax increase on the wealthiest to pay for wars most of them wanted (and many benefitted from) as well as education and training that helps people lift themselves out of poverty?

Do you care enough to "be in solidarity with the poor," as Proverbs 14:31 demands?

Please ponder carefully; it matters.


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