Wednesday, January 05, 2005

War on the Impoverished

I have been taken to task by my fellow Christians for the admittedly cynical and strident tone of my Blog. Our pastor, a man I admire and respect, once stated that non-Christians are incredibly sensitive to hypocrisy. It is as if atheists and agnostics are waiting to pounce on us for any misstep. I think this is true but it is not the issue, the issue is why Christians aren’t sensitive to their own hypocrisy.

As an example I would note that in the 1960’s and 1970’s the United States declared a war on poverty. This is the type of war that our God called us to fight and yet it has become increasingly evident that Christians are not simply abandoning the war on poverty, we are changing sides. Social Security is a case in point. President Bush, the Evangelical President and the single most visible symbol of American Christianity has decided to hit the poor where they have already been hit the hardest, in their wallets. More disturbingly our President is doing this with the “Political Capital” he “earned” with the help of the Religious Right during the 2004 elections.

Harold Meyerson had this to sayin today’s Washington Post:

In 1960, when the Senate Subcommittee on the Problems of the Aged and Aging issued its report -- which is the source of the quotation in the first paragraph -- poverty among the elderly was pervasive. Two years earlier the Census Bureau had concluded that almost 60 percent of seniors had annual incomes under $1,000 a year, at a time when the government estimated an adequate yearly budget for a retired couple to be roughly $3,000. Family members and friends helped support seniors, of course, but the 1961 White House Conference on Aging concluded that that assistance amounted to just 10 percent of seniors' incomes -- and less than that, of course, among poorer families. The elderly received their Social Security checks, too, but they still amounted to chump change. In 1959 the average monthly check came to just $70.

I've culled these mournful numbers from Michael Harrington's 1962 classic exposé of destitution amid affluence, "The Other America," a book that dared to propose that the nation could eliminate the poverty in its midst. "The Other America" was one factor that led Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to initiate a war on poverty -- a major component of which was a war on senior poverty that included the establishment of Medicare and a vast expansion of Social Security. Forty years later the war on senior poverty stands as a stunning success.

Today, however, the United States is governed by a president who is affronted by the very idea of a successful government program. According to a story in yesterday's Post, President Bush wants to change the Social Security indexing formula in a way that will reduce monthly payments by 32.5 percent by 2052 and 45.9 percent by 2075. Today a retiree receives a Social Security check that equals 42 percent of the average worker's wage; if Bush's plan is enacted, that check will shrink to just 20 percent of that wage.

Bush is proposing to cut benefits by 46% in by 2075 from what they would have been if the system were kept whole. If we do nothing the Social Security Administration estimates that benefits would be reduced by 33% by 2079 due to funding shortfalls. A modest increase in the level of income to which we apply social security taxes (but not an increase in the tax rate itself) would leave seniors whole.

I know that my linking of Republican Economic Policy to American Christian values may seem unfair to some. The fact remains however that Christians turned out in overwhelming numbers and with deliberate high visibility to support this President and his policies. Ironically, the Religious Right ushered in President Bush under the guise of a Culture War. However, the real Culture War appears to be against the poor. I pray that God has more mercy on us than we have on the poor.


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