Is the Growing Gap between Rich and Poor Prima Facie Evidence of an Unjust System?

Is the Growing Gap between Rich and Poor Prima Facie Evidence of an Unjust System? January 29, 2014

Is the Growing Gap between Rich and Poor Prima Facie Evidence of Injustice?

Yes. In the world today the richest one percent hold more wealth than the poorest forty-eight percent. And gap is widening. In the United States today the richest ten percent hold more wealth than the poorest forty-three percent and the gap is the largest in over thirty years and growing. The problem isn’t just the gap; the problem is that the richest of the rich are growing richer every year and the poorest of the poor are growing poorer every year.

Economic conservatives have put their faith in “trickle down economics” and charity. Economic liberals have put their faith in government welfare. Neither has worked—except that government welfare has kept the gap from growing even faster and greater and has kept many children alive and relatively well.

People who put their faith in the rich to “share their wealth” as an alternative to government safety net programs are, I believe, laboring under an illusion. Often they seem to think the rich are more virtuous than the poor (relegating a large percentage of the poor to the category of “lazy” and “undeserving”.) In his book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism Catholic philosopher and theologian Michael Novak assures readers that most of the wealthy are more than eager to spread their wealth around and that it’s actually to their own advantage to do so. I agree with the latter but not with the former.

I sometimes wonder how good people, intelligent people, spiritual people, can think that the enormous and growing gap between the rich and the poor (resulting in many thousands of homeless and hungry children) is not evidence of an unjust social system. I find that it is beyond argument. Of course, cases have been made (e.g., by Robert Nozick) that it is not, but their presuppositions seem seriously flawed to me (e.g., that the rich earned their wealth justly through totally “fair” exchanges).

But on a purely pragmatic level, I often wonder how people who defend the current system and its results can believe that it will not lead to social unrest. It has to unless something happens to redress or at least very seriously ameliorate its effects. Wherever poverty exists crime follows. Much of that crime is, I believe, understandable even if not justifiable.

Recently, in the city where I live, a (probably) homeless man entered a sandwich shop, ordered a sandwich, and dropped some coins on the counter (after being handed the sandwich) saying that’s all he had. He walked out without paying the full amount he owed. A shop employee followed him outside and confronted him. What exactly happened is unclear; the employee probably tried to take the sandwich away. The man fought the employee for the sandwich and the employee was injured (not severely). The police arrived, arrested the man with the sandwich, and he was sentenced to three years in a state prison.

I certainly don’t know all the details, but I wonder—what if the man was truly hungry? We read or watch “Les Miserables” and Charles Dickens novels and sympathize with Jean Valjean and Dickens’ poverty-stricken characters, but when it comes to real life people actually stealing bread, well, that’s different. Then many of us want them locked up for years. Sure, the man assaulted the employee and that’s not right. But three years in prison?

If I had been in that store when it happened I would have volunteered to make up the difference for the hungry man, to pay the remainder of what he owed. I’ve done that in sandwich shops and other food outlets when someone did not have enough to pay for their food. But what if the shop manager had done it and then talked to the man about how to get food free—at one of several locations around town where meals are served free of charge?

My point is that we are now facing a situation in our own “land of the free” and “home of opportunity” where many thousands of people, including children, do not have enough nutritious food to eat. Their bellies may be full, but it’s not with decent food that nourishes their bodies. And many politicians and others are blaming them—even when the people work but cannot support themselves or their families on the pittances they are paid.

In this city where a (probably) homeless man stole a sandwich and went to prison, another man, a decent, law-abiding citizen much admired, is building a twenty-three thousand square foot mansion at a cost of well over a million dollars—for him and his wife.

There is something blatantly unjust about such a society. We owe each other more—at least enough to be fed and sheltered. There are still many people falling through the cracks in the social safety net and others who want to shred the social safety net even further—often in the name of “compassion” (how ironic!).

I am an independent; I do not belong to any political party. However, I applaud any president who promises to use his legal powers to help close the growing gap between rich and poor and return America to a true land of opportunity for everyone. (I speak only for myself and not for anyone or organization I am associated with. And I am not using this forum to promote any political party or candidate. I am only expressing my opinion about one promise a president has made. I disagree with many other things he does.)

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