Broken World, Current Events — July 18, 2011 at 1:36 am

Who should pay for America’s future?

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When American programs to help the poorest citizens are compared to East African countries we do pretty well…right? No one is starving death and almost no one is living in a house made of garbage. I run a school in Kenya called Daylight Center so I am often comparing the two regions in my mind. But what many don’t realize is that America and Kenya have the same wealth inequality rating according to the United Nations.*

We appear to be better than Kenya because our poor are richer than Kenya’s poor, but what many forget is that the top 1% of America’s earners are far richer than Kenya’s. American leaders are struggling to cut and or tax their way through a veritable financial jungle. Nearest I can tell, the current battle seems to be over who should pay for the future of America.

So, in order to help people see things in a new light I want to compare America to East Africa. Let’s take two examples, side-by-side, and compare: Minnesota USA vs. Kenya, Africa…

In Minnesota a family on government assistance often lives in subsidized housing, though through relationships I’ve built with some families, I’ves seen up to 10 people living in a one or two bedroom apartment. Below you’ll see the 2 bedroom low-income apartment I lived in during college with 5 people. In Kenya a low-income or no-income family receives no government help and lives in a shanty made of garbage.

All neighborhoods in Minneapolis, MN have free public schools and feature classrooms with at least 1 computer. Free Public Education is rare in Kenya. Most Kenyan schools cost around $300 a semester and have a few books, a blackboard, and no computers.

Minnesota also has a health care program called MinnesotaCare which provides free health care for citizens who are on welfare programs, although not everyone is covered, many are. In Kenya all medical bills are paid in cash, there is no health care insurance for most people. So many people die from treatable illnesses like malaria and pneumonia.

America might have a higher standard of care for its most vulnerable, but if the income inequality is the same in both countries what could America accomplish? What happens when you compare America against its own potential? In America, the riches 1% make an average of 440 times as much money as the bottom 50% of Americans.** Comparing low income apartments and mansions changes the way I see the choice between cutting government assistance or taxing the rich.

Schools in America are not all performing at the same level. The group Closing the Achievement Gap headed by Alma and Colin Powell reported in 2009 that there was a large gap between the average high school graduation rate of 53 % in urban schools, compared with 71 % in the suburbs. It’s true that America provides free public education to all, but the outcomes seem to be radically different. And let me just mention that we spend 15 times more money on military than on education ($45 Billion vs $689 Billion).***

And Americans spend about the same on the Military, Health Care for the poor and elderly, and Social Security. Do Americans really value war that much? So what kind of America could we live in? Who will pay for our future? Do we want to cut funding to our students and low income earners or will we ask our richest citizens (remember 440 times richer!) to bring our country into the future?

You might even want to ask yourself an oldie but a goodie…WWJD?

* http://hdrstats.undp.org/en/indicators/146.html

**http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/29/business/worldbusiness/29iht-income.4.5075504.html

***http://www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/120xx/doc12039/HistoricalTables%5B1%5D.pdf

28 Comments

  • Yes, what would Jesus do in the context of 20th century America?

    Would Jesus have us operate on a presumption of greed for those who have much, operate on a presumption of innocence for those who have little?  Or would he recognize that some have more because they have rare skills or make wiser choices, some have less because they have common skills or make poorer choices?

    Would Jesus build an alliance with the modern-day Caesar to indiscriminately siphon the assets from the presumed-greedy and distribute them to the presumed-innocent?  Or might he keep Caesar at arms length and work within freely chosen social structures to free the hearts of the successful to share with and offer opportunity to the needy?

    Would Jesus foment envy among the lower half of income earners, creating a broadly defined victim class?  Or would he encourage gratitude for the availability of food and shelter and promote the greater realization of everyone’s own potential to be sources of generosity rather than just recipients?

    Would Jesus assume that all money seized by tax collectors are utilized for their announced intentions?  Or would he be wisely skeptical and hold rulers accountable for results rather than just a convincing display of intent?

    Would Jesus assume all recipients of financial assistance truly benefit from any monies they receive?  Or would he be cautious not to simply reward poor choices or enable people to shortchange their own potential?

  • The questions you highlighted are certainly ways that social welfare programs can go wrong. By creating a “victim class” or inhibiting potential. Tax increases can also be mismanaged or misappropriated.
    But my experience has shown that your questions tend to reflect a suburban or rural view of urban social welfare programs.
    People who work with or are at-risk people in urban settings tend to see the huge benefits of food stamps, low income housing, and gov’t subsided health care.
    Simply Moving money around can’t fix problems, but giving people a helping hand up in society is at the heart of the Gospel.

  • Keith…your questions are thoughtful and compelling. Thanks for your contribution to this post.

    Nate…you ask: Who should pay for America’s future? An interesting question. A few thoughts: Individual Americans should pay for their own futures. And we should be free to do so with the full fruits of our labor unencumbered by compulsory income taxation and wealth redistribution from a Godless State. We should keep in mind that our government does not give anything it has not previously taken through taxation. It doesn’t produce. It doesn’t create wealth. It merely taxes the producers and redistributes their wealth. In essence, every government program that gives assistance to people in need is funded by people who are strangers to the people who received the assistance. To add insult to injury, this redistribution of wealth is largely done in an inefficient manner.

    The government taking the first fruits of man’s labor is at variance with God’s design. The worker has initial claim to the wage of his or her labor (2Tim 2:6), and God has first and primary claim on the worker and his or her subsequent labor (Exodus 23). The worker is indeed worthy of his wages (Luke 10:7, 1Tim 5:18). Work is a creation ordinance. That is to say, it is a pre-fall institution ordained by God (Gen 2:15), and as such is an inalienable right directly tied to man’s survival and existence (2Thess 3:10). As such, its fruits should not be diminished, or otherwise impeded, by a non-theocratic Godless government.

    Well, what of the poor? They should be remembered and assisted (Gal 2:10, James 1:27). By whom? By individuals under the pressure and direction of their Creator, not by a Godless State inefficiently redistributing wealth it has previously confiscated.

    Nate…your post referenced that we spend $45 billion on education. I’m not sure what you mean by that. I tried to pull up the link you cited but I could not get it to come up. We actually spend far more on K-12 education in this country than $45 billion. It is commonly understood that public education expenditures toggle between 4% and 5.5% of GDP. GDP is currently over 14 trillion. Part of my graduate school work involved cultural analysis comparisons between the educational systems of the U.S. and Finland. The U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences reports that the most recent confirmed data of government spending on K-12 education to be at $596.6 billion.

    But Americans spend even more than $596.6 billion on education. Of the roughly 51 million school age children (ages 5-17) in the U.S., ten percent (10%) are in PRIVATE schools (being funded largely by their parents at great cost). Additionally, there are approximately 1.8 million kids who are HOMESCHOOLED each year in the U.S. at significant cost to their parents.

    More could be said, particularly about military spending, but I fear I’m too long as it is. Thanks for raising an interesting question.

  • http://www.usgovernmentspending.com/defense_budget_2010_3.html#usgs302

    Pre-primary thru secondary education 45.6

    Military defense 690.3

    The numbers are +- 1 billion.

    hope that helps.

  • Nate…the usgovernmentspending.com chart you reference above only pertains to FEDERAL spending/taxation. It’s true that Military spending/taxation is only at the federal level, but Public Education is sustained by federal, state, and local taxation. In fact the above website for the same calender year you reference (2009) shows that Americans spent $532 billion tax dollars on K-12 education at the LOCAL level alone.

    Interestingly, when we consider the total spending that Americans dedicate to education annually, which includes college and graduate school, the figure far exceeds a TRILLION dollars….double what we budget for national defense.

  • One of our bloggers responded here: http://www.commonsenseconcept.com/equality-envy-and-idolatry/

    “Don’t get caught in the web of envy and idolatry that lurks behind the desire for greater material equality among people. Seek to improve the lives of everyone, rich and poor, in ways that are genuinely meaningful, including—but not limited to—physical quality of life. Whatever ends you seek, don’t rely the on ineffective and immoral means of coercive government programs. Before you argue for something, check your assumptions.”

    • I just fundamentally disagree with you on this point:
      “There is no logical or Biblical argument for a certain level of material equality. All such sentiments are thinly veiled envy, and materialist idolatry. To despise someone for their wealth and to desire them to have less of it (without even knowing the state of their heart) is a sin. To desire that people have a more equal level of material wealth is to focus on materials rather than hearts.”

      To love your neighbor as yourself demands equality of all sorts, including educational opportunities, a place to live, and opportunity to do meaningful work. I believe that meeting the needs of the soul begins with meeting physical needs.
      And You don’t have to despise someone to demand that they pitch in more money during economically hard times.

  • Nate–  

    You said, 

    “But my experience has shown that your questions tend to reflect a suburban or rural view of urban social welfare programs.

    “People who work with or are at-risk people in urban settings tend to see the huge benefits of food stamps, low income housing, and gov’t subsided health care.”

    In fact, I have been brought up in as rural a setting as there is.  The county road by the home I grew up in wasn’t even paved.  Are you suggesting that renders my perspective obtuse or just irrelevant?   Does it help that I now live in an inner-ring suburb?  I married a woman who was working for a Salvation Army homeless shelter at the time and I volunteer occasionally for an inner city homeless shelter.  I’ve also visited the slums of Nairobi, Kenya.

    I don’t see how any of that qualifies or disqualifies my perspective.  I see what I see and make whatever sense of it I can.  I have no doubt urban people (just like rural people) experience real benefits from assistance programs.  I’ve seen it.  Help me understand what strategies you see in place to avoid the moral hazards of dependency and entitlement.  Maybe I just haven’t seen what you and others have.

    I agree with what you said, that “giving people a helping hand up in society is at the heart of the Gospel.” Exactly how does voting for rulers to seize cash from our more affluent neighbors engage in that endeavor?  Is there anything less generous than volunteering someone else to contribute?  I’m honestly baffled by how tax-enforced generosity can be considered virtuous.  

    Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.” “Give to those in need.” “Visit the prisoner.” Step me through the thought process that authorizes us to delegate, by force of law, ANY of that responsibility to the neighbors we presume to be better-off, thereby relieving some (if not all) of the burden on ourselves.
             

  • Perhaps another scripture will shed light on my position.
    The Parable of the workers in the Vineyard. If you are unfamiliar see a brief synopsis of Matt. 20:1-16 below.
    This text is a great example of Biblical economics. The master puts people to work throughout the day. Some go to work later not because they are lazy, but because “no one has hired them.” And then Jesus pays them all the same wage. Some would decry this as redistribution of wealth, but I think Jesus knew that the workers had been waiting to work all day, but were only given the chance in the afternoon. It was his decision to help them equally. And Jesus responds to critics “are you envious because I am generous?”
    Jesus was pro helping people who needed help. And this meant that people who worked harder got less money in the end.

    Now I put this to you. I agree fully that Christians should give their money to those who need help without needing to be forced by law through a government agency. But the reality is that people historically have not freely donated enough money to run a good society. I am open to hearing of a modern contrary example. Broken as it is, the Government is the only organization I know of with the power to call America’s citizens to help those who are hurting to the tune of billions of dollars. Without taxes many important programs would simply cease to exist.

    Jesus first goes out and finds people standing around with nothing to do. And calls them to work.
    “He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

    “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

    “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
    At the end of the Day the early workers expect more pay but they all get the same money. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

    13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

    • The parable actually supports my point rather than yours. Capitalists have never had a problem with whatever freely chosen action a businessman takes involving involving his or her own resources. To compensate one group more generously than another would be considered admirable in some contexts and unsustainable in others.

      But that’s not even the point of the parable. It has nothing to do with how Jesus would run a business. It’s about gratitude vs. envy. It was the whole-shifters calling up their union reps to complain about the unfair treatment that Jesus was confronting. They were paid exactly what they agreed to work for. Instead of being grateful for the opportunity, they measured the deal they got with the deal someone else got and judged their employer as unjust.

      That’s precisely what progressivism does. Instead of recognizing how rare starvation is in America and how seldom people die of exposure or any other symptom of poverty, progressives take it upon themselves to measure and police the very same kind of “injustice” the first group of workers did in Jesus parable.

      Who are we to judge what another person’s labor is worth or not worth. If an employer is foolishly overpaying or underpaying they’ll either loose profits or loose workers.

    • Nate:

      First off that particular Scripture has nothing to do with economics. It had to do with people becoming a part of the kingdom of God,
      Jesus is referring to the covenant between the Hebrews and God and later between the coming new covenant between the God and Gentiles as the newest members of God’s Kingdom

      Secondly from an economic stand point Jesus is pointing out that the Master/ Business owner has the right to pay his employees what ever he wants. They agreed to the contract and he honored it.

  • agree to disagree…but you know in your heart of hearts that I’m right… ; )

  • Nate–I’m disappointed.  I’m really not sure how much we agree or disagree.  You seem to disagree with yourself. 

    We both agree generosity is a good thing and hoarding for the sake of hoarding is a bad thing.  I also suspect we both agree that divorcing people from the consequences of their choices tends to undermine their potential.  I suspect we both agree that the government has and will likely continue to foolishly allocate the resources it confiscates from us. 

    And yet, you seem to demonstrate an astounding amount of faith in the governments ability effectively counteract all the incidental inequalities of life.  That’s just inexplicable to me.  In all sincerity, I think you’re lying to yourself.

    The one thing we do flat-out disagree on is the supposed virtue of material equality.  You’re bio says that your life ambition is to explain the problem of evil in one sentence.  Your standing right in it–the problem of evil arises from our inability to dismiss peripheral inequalities as insignificant next to the unsurpassable worth we each possess as God’s image bearers.  In the Bible, Lucifer could not bear to be unequal to God, so he led a rebellion against him.  Then he enticed Adam and Eve with the prospect of being “like God.” Cain killed his brother Able over the inequality of his sacrifice.  Should I go on?  Joseph’s brothers’ contempt for the unequal treatment they received from Jacob.  Name a single war that wasn’t fought over something one nation had that the aggressor nation felt unequal for not having. 

    I am an advocate of equal treatment in general, artfully tempered with grace and generosity. Equal results, however, is an entirely different matter.  Demanding equal outcomes demands measuring and  comparing, then responding with strategically UNEQUAL treatment in an attempt to compensate for the naturally unequal levels of skill and effort as well as incidental variations in circumstances.   The only practical way to accomplish that, once all the unintended consequences are factored in, is to squelch freedom and mandate uniformity–which is always the curve socialism takes.  The result is a massive spike in inequality between the empowered planning class, the shrinking productive class, and the growing dependency class.  Plus a massive spike in material and spiritual poverty.  Tell me again how that equates with loving our neighbor as ourself?

  • Well, having stumbled onto this discussion I can only say I’m quite disappointed by that ending to what was otherwise a very interesting discussion.

    I think that the moral and ethical ramifications of state action or inaction are so far reaching and profound that agreeing to disagree is borderline irresponsible. As a church, I think that this needs to be reasoned to a conclusion, because it impacts significantly on how we live our lives.

    • I agree. At this point, I don’t think there’s anything preventing us those of us who wish to continue from doing so.

      What do you feel are the core ideas still hanging?

  • Well there certainly seems to be a disconnect between Nate’s justification of a certain egalitarian end result and his support for a Government based method for achieving it. It’s easy to justify a form of egalitarianism from Scripture, but then the crucial jump Nate is making (that everyone else here isn’t) is the concept that only a state-like authority with coercive tax powers can achieve it, so therefore it’s justified.

    Let’s set aside the argument over whether that is a valid positive remark, because it would require statistical research of charitable giving outside of heavy taxation, the best example of which would probably be middle class giving in the 19th century. While I recall those figures being quite massive, it is a line of argument unlikely to offer a clear conclusion due to the many variables that need to be accounted for.

    Instead, the normative, ethical element has to be where we make our decision – we have more tools to hand. I’m interested to know how Nate would deal with the difficult line “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?”, which was conspicuously missing from his quote of verse 15 in his argument above. Equally, as the Common Sense blog entry points out, when Jesus asked the rich man to give all he had to the poor, he then let the man walk away because “Apparently, it was the rich man’s heart, not his possessions, Jesus was after.”

    Ultimately, however, unless Nate is willing to fight his corner this probably isn’t going to go anywhere.

  • By the way Keith, I don’t mean to sideline your argument about the value (or lack thereof) of equality as a social goal. I am assuming – perhaps wrongly – that we all think that within a grace driven community material inequality would not be substantial as believers willingly share with those they know. I am also assuming, therefore, that our disconnect is in whether that trend towards a certain level of equality is optional, as with the early Apostolic church, or forced.

  • Graeme–

    Excellent thoughts.  I’m not sure that I see material equality as a goal with which we are called to concern ourselves.  Starvation or malnutrition?  Yes.  Homelessness?  Yes.  Physical safety and emergency healthcare?  Yes.  Comparable living space?  I don’t think so.  Access to travel opportunities?  TV count and screen sizes?  

    Material inequalities beyond the provision of basic needs, to me, are peripheral.  They are a function of a diversity of skill sets, resourcefulness, and desires.  I don’t expect to ever own a yacht, a private jet, or more than one modest house.  Yet I have zero resentment for those who do.  In fact I admire the level of expertise they must have attained to make such compensation seem equitable to the engaged parties.  Their having a jet didn’t take the food out of anyone’s mouth–on the contrary, it put a great deal of food in the mouths of the factory workers who built the jet.  Construction workers have jobs when wealthy folks have them build a second or third house.  It’s the same for all of the “really nice stuff” they have. 

    Pursuing material equality requires us to measure and compare precisely what Jesus taught was not relevant to God’s blessing–”blessed are the poor.”  A market economy as diverse as ours is simply to complex to engineer equal square footage of home and property for all people, equal plate sizes and food quality for every meal.  That is all peripheral to our truest well-beings and I think we do a disservice validating any envy or resentment that arises from that reality.  I think we should rather concern ourselves with people’s hearts and their intrinsic worth rather than their net economic worth.  Health and nutrition–yes.  Adequate living space–yes.  A general posture of generosity–yes. 

  • I don’t disagree that it is permissible, and certainly don’t begrudge believers reaping the benefits of their contribution to the marketplace. However, while I feel that equality may not be the goal of a graceful community, I do feel that it is in the character of grace to find greater comfort in giving to others than in giving to oneself. Beyond a certain (relative) point, therefore, I would expect the opportunity cost of buying more for oneself to be too high for the man of grace to justify. In that sense, I believe that inequality within graceful communities would be self regulating, at least with regard to great extremes. Gaps should (<- that is an expectation, not a normative claim) narrow due to the naturally giving nature of disciples, not because equality itself is considered something to strive for.

  • For example, in our church we have a fairly high disparity in wealth. Some make ends meet, others have summer homes on the Mediterranean. The sign of grace is that those summer homes are often filled with those who are just making ends meet, because the rich believers take joy in sharing their assets with their friends at church. Material inequality is narrowed, though there has been no concerted effort to do so, just because of the giving nature of the believer.

    • Graeme–

      Beautiful example of how authentic generosity can work.  My sense is that sort of thing is far more prevalent than people realize, because it’s not really measurable.

      It seems like politically conservative Christians are still stuck in the box of the old Religious Right.  We need to find better ways of expressing our affinity towards authentic generosity as it contrasts with centrally planned redistribution.   Also, even though we tend to favor the “tough love” approach of allowing the consequences of people’s choices to unfold, we need to acknowledge that that approach is easily confused with indifference and may at times actually be indifference rather than the tough love we claim.   We need to be ready to articulate the apparent exceptions to the rule of allowing people to live with their consequences rather than continuing the dialog in broad overgeneralized terms. 

  • I taken some time to think about the positions being advocated in response to my piece. And I want to thank you for your time and energy in discussing the ideas of economics, equality, and wealth.
    It is difficult to discuss economic policy with people who seem to have fundamentally different views of what equal opportunities in society would look like and what the role of government is in pursuing this type of equality.
    My experiences as a non-profit, public, and religious servant has convinced me that as flawed as government is, it is still an important mechanism
    for creating large scale opportunities for greater upward social mobility for at-risk people. And creating opportunities costs money.
    And wealth in America is increasingly concentrated at the very top stratas of our society. (ie millioniares and billionares)
    It would be awesome if compassion and Christian love compelled these top earners to reinvest in the country that allowed them to prosper. But if they are unwilling to do it of their own accord than I believe that the people of America can vote in legislators who will require them to.
    However, as the debt ceiling talks continue it is becoming increasingly unlikely that this will happen in the foreseeable future.

    • Nate–I appreciate your courage in putting your ideas out where others are able to challenge. This is an important topic. My hope is that we are all able to see in each other a common desire to see God’s heart exposed to the world. Even though we would employ different strategies, we can still respect the sincerity of that core pursuit.

      Blessings.

  • Well, if WWJD is going to be the banner one wants to wave you might as well go all the way. What else would Jesus want people to do? “Observe all that I have commanded you.” Back to Constantinian Christendom!

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