Did the recession actually start about 40 years ago?
I didn’t know I was a pessimist on the economy, especially its bottom half, until I asked the opinions of a diverse mix of well-informed people. I sampled the thinking of three people in particular, in a story and sidebar appearing in the April 21 issue of Our Sunday Visitor, a national Catholic weekly with a fairly conservative audience.
I don’t know how many of its readers will agree with economist and social ethicist Charles Clark, when he argues basically—Forget about knocking down poverty rates, if we don’t do something about economic inequality. They might agree with my friend of many years, journalist Cecilio Morales, who has read every study out there about anti-poverty programs, when he explains that getting out of poverty is getting harder all the time. And they’d probably agree with Sam Gregg, who, for his own libertarian conservative Christian reasons, doesn’t expect the poor and vulnerable to get a lift any time soon.
Apparently my slant was none too subtle. The headline writer added the drop line, “Country’s tax and economic policies favor the fortunate few … ” Here’s the main bar, followed by the sidebar:
On March 28, the Wall Street Journal ran a long story headlined, “Use of Food Stamps Swells Even as Economy Improves.” The Journal reported that a record 47.8 million people are enrolled in what is officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, despite what the headline writer saw as a brighter economic picture.
One cause of the jump (from about a million fewer the previous year) is that President Barack Obama’s administration has loosened eligibility requirements for food stamps. But that’s hardly the whole story, analysts say. The simpler explanation is that record numbers of Americans are poor.
During the economy recovery, the official poverty rate has remained stuck at around 15 percent (the poverty line is $23,021 for a family of four). That’s pretty much the same as the percentage of Americans getting food stamps.
At the same time, the stock market is roaring. This juxtaposition — market up, people down — should not surprise anyone, said Charles M. A. Clark, senior fellow of the Vincentian Center for Church and Society at St. John’s University in New York.
“There’s never been a connection between the stock market and poverty rates, or even the stock market and the economy,” he told Our Sunday Visitor in a telephone interview.
No trickling down
Even economic growth doesn’t benefit the poor like it used to, according to Clark, who teaches economics at St. John’s. He noted that for decades after World War II, rising tides lifted all boats. Incomes at the economy’s lower rungs grew even faster than those at the top. But that trend was upended in the 1980s. Now, Clark said: “The trickle-down effect has clearly stopped.”
The reasons most often cited for the shift are globalization (which weakened the bargaining power of U.S. workers) and technology (which put a premium on high-skilled labor). But Clark also faults government policies that he says widened gaps between rich and poor.
He points to tax policy. In recent decades the wealthy have been taxed less as a percentage of their rising incomes, and corporate taxes are noticeably lower than they once were, as a percentage of the overall economy, Clark said. Financial deregulation also has allowed Wall Street to drastically up its share of national wealth.
As the U.S. Catholic bishops often have said, the basic moral test of an economy is how well the poor and vulnerable are faring. By that standard, the American economy isn’t doing well and hasn’t been for quite some time, as Clark sees it.
The problem, in his analysis, is that public policy is tilted toward the fortunate few. He cites the 2008 financial collapse. “We bailed out and made whole the very rich and the very industries that caused the problem in the first place, but we haven’t bailed out the people affected by it,” Clark said, referring to millions of homeowners whose mortgages are still greater than what their houses are worth.
To tackle poverty, “we have to address high inequality, which no one wants to deal with,” Clark told OSV. Topping his agenda would be an all-out effort to expand access to higher education, which creates opportunities, and health care, which too many lack. And that would require government action, he said.
From a Catholic perspective, education and health care are social goods, but they’re not ends in themselves. They’re examples of what people need to become full participants in society. “In Catholic social thought, it’s the participation that’s important,” Clark said. But that doesn’t happen, he added, when people are excluded from higher education because they can’t pay tuition or when they can’t get the health care they need. (He feels the jury is out on whether the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as “Obamacare,” will do much to solve the latter problem).
Aiding business growth
What complicates this outlook is that many people simply don’t agree.
Samuel Gregg, research director at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, called for an altogether different agenda. Poverty is unlikely to ease, he said, unless Americans finally decide to rein in the national debt and support low-tax-and-regulation policies aimed at promoting growth through entrepreneurship.
“Business and market-driven growth is what gets people out of poverty on a sustainable basis. Not government,” he said. “Just ask the millions of Chinese and Indians who have escaped poverty over the past 20 years” by way of rapid growth.
As to what could be done now to tamp down poverty, Gregg added, “Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes.”
Other analysts are relatively optimistic, predicting the economy will expand and jobs will begin flowing a year from now. Clark acknowledged that economic growth would help. But it takes a long time to reach people at the bottom, he noted.
“Don’t expect it to happen in the next few years,” he said.
And here’s the sidebar, featuring Morales and his vivid description of the poverty trap.
Poverty is rarely a hot topic in American politics, and when it is, one point often gets lost in the discussion.
“Getting out of poverty is a lot harder than most people realize,” said Cecilio Morales, a journalist and expert on public and private nonprofit programs geared to lifting up the poor.
Morales is editor-in-chief and publisher of the specialized weekly Employment and Training Reporter. He cited a typical case: a single mother on welfare who gets help finding a job and lining up child care. To begin with, the obstacles to just holding down that job are sobering.
“One slip and you’re out,” he said by email. “The most common slip? One of the kids gets sick. Day care doesn’t want a sick kid. Burger flippers don’t get leave to look after kids.”
“This is a cobbled life,” Morales added. “Transportation fails. Anything. She loses her job. Then she’s back to square one. With nothing to show for it.”
Since the federal welfare overhaul in 1996, mothers in that predicament have also faced a five-year lifetime limit on the aid. “Welfare reform got a lot of people off the rolls,” Morales said, “but not out of poverty.”
More government help with job creation, day care and other initiatives would bolster the chances of success, he added, but there’s no silver bullet. “Poverty is very hard to beat, and this society puts too few resources into beating it,” said Morales, whose articles on economic policy have appeared in both secular and religious publications.
Samuel Gregg of the Acton Institute, headquartered in Grand Rapids, Mich., would like to see more efforts by people of faith, fewer by government.
“Catholics have concrete responsibilities to the poor, and all of us should be looking for ways to come to the aid of our brothers and sisters in need,” he affirmed. But in his view, the best ways are either through charities or an expanding business that creates jobs.
“There are government Band-Aids that can be applied,” Gregg said. “They’re not a lasting solution.”
For that matter, a job isn’t a lasting solution for many. The Census Bureau recently reported that a quarter of all jobs in America pay below the poverty line for a family of four.
TheoPol will be on assignment next week and will return the following week.