Wealth gap should concern us all, Catholic social activists urge at DNC
CHARLOTTE — No matter what their political persuasion, all Catholics must do more to respond to a widening wealth gap in the U.S., social justice advocates urged during two presentations at St. Peter Church on Sept. 5 and 6 – part of a week's worth of programming to highlight the Church's social gospel during the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.
Led by Sister Simone Campbell – a Sister of Social Service and executive director of Network, a national Catholic social justice lobby – members of Network laid out the causes and problems related to a growing gap between the poor, the middle class and the wealthy in America, and how that divide is creating social unrest and political gridlock.
"The consequences of the wealth gap is that the hundred percent do worse when there's a great wealth gap, and that we will all do better when there's not such a wide gulf among Americans," Sister Campbell said during the first program Sept. 5.
Network has been running a public awareness campaign called "Mind the Gap" to highlight the growing wealth disparity in the U.S. Launched before the "Occupy Wall Street" movement emerged on the national scene, its campaign aims to point out the disparities in wealth, the corrupting influence of money in politics and the decline in public participation in government.
About 75 people, including a handful of Democratic Party delegates, came to listen to the Sept. 5 presentation by Network's Shannon Hughes, education program coordinator, and Jean Sammon, field coordinator.
Hughes and Sammon cited various statistics that demonstrate the wealth gap has widened especially since 1979, in which 10 percent of the population now owns three-quarters of all the wealth in the U.S. From 1949 to 1979, on the other hand, all income levels grew at about the same rate of 10-12 percent – whether people were at the bottom or the top of the income ladder, they said.
According to a March 2011 Economic Policy Institute report entitled "The State of Working America's Wealth, 2011" and the Center for American Progress Action Fund's "Fair Shot Versus 'You're-on-your-own' Economics," Hughes noted:
— The top 10 percent of Americans possess 75.1 percent of the country's wealth, while the bottom 90 percent own about 25 percent.
— The top 1 percent of Americans – which the Occupy Wall Street movement has famously singled out for criticism – owned 35.6 percent of the country's net worth in 2009.
— The bottom 20 percent of Americans (those making less than $26,000 per year) have seen their collective net worth decline 1.4 percent from 1979 to 2009, while the top 20 percent of Americans (those who make more than $112,000 per year) have seen their net worth grow by more than 100 percent. The top 1 percent of earners (those making more than $1 million per year) have seen their net worth grow by 169 percent.
These disparities among income groups are even greater when race is figured in, Hughes said.
And notably, Hughes said, the overall amount of wealth has been rising; in fact, since 2007 when the recession hit, housing prices tanked, credit shrank and the stock market tumbled, overall wealth has declined. The recession hit middle-class homeowners – who have a larger proportion of their net worth tied up in their homes and who have been accumulating more debt – harder than any other group.
So why is all this important particularly to Catholics?
There is a "preferential option for the poor," Sister Campbell said to the audience of about 75 people gathered in Biss Hall, and that principle can be applied to such political issues such as welfare assistance, tax policy, unemployment and the minimum wage.
Government policies should be geared toward building up the middle class, Hughes and Sammon said, and we as Catholics have a political responsibility to engage with our government and work for change.
Wealth means power, Sister Campbell noted, but as Catholics we know that every person has basic human rights whether they are rich or poor.
Power can also come in the form of political activism and voting, she added with a smile. She urged the audience to learn more and then get involved to "mend the gap" and work for a broadly-shared prosperity.
Actions they suggested included advocating for changes in federal tax policy, support for unions, fair housing, programs to encourage personal saving, and greater campaign finance disclosure and transparency.
Franciscan Father Richard Rohr, who was visiting the Democratic National Convention from New Mexico at the invitation of friends, said he was interested in getting educated on such issues – going beyond the sound bites thrown around by both Democrats and Republicans. Catholics must support all of what the Church teaches, and he understands how that can be difficult to play out when Catholics enter the voting booth.
"You have to balance it out," Father Rohr said, after learning as much as you can and forming one's conscience with the help of Catholic teaching.
Sheila Gallagher, a Democratic delegate from Florence, S.C., said she thought the presentation helped her to think more about the social issues that Catholics like herself face. She works in a food pantry and is a member of the Legion of Mary at her parish, St. Anne Church, and she wants to share with her fellow parishioners what she learned during the convention this week as well as the programs like those hosted by St. Peter Church.
— Patricia L. Guilfoyle, editor
Want to know more?
Read more about Sister Simone Campbell's talk to DNC convention.
To learn more about this campaign, go online to www.networklobby.org/campaign/mind-the-gap.
To read the entire March 2011 Economic Policy Institute report entitled "The State of Working America's Wealth, 2011": http://www.epi.org/page/-/BriefingPaper292.pdf?nocdn=1