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What We Fear the Most

Poverty, middle aged woman searching container – en

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Mark Gordon - published on 10/22/14 - updated on 06/07/17

Forget ISIS and Ebola. Inequality is the thing that concerns most Americans, survey finds.

“For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’” (Romans 8:15)

If your only window on the wider world was CNN or Fox News, you might be excused for thinking that ISIS and Ebola have Americans cowering in darkened bedrooms. The greatest physical threats to our individual wellbeing remain heart disease, cancer, auto accidents, gun violence and even furniture tipping, which injures or kills over 40,000 Americans a year.

Nevertheless, the media are doing their best to convince us that the Muslim horde and a virus from Africa are poised to kill us all.

Fortunately, the American people are smarter than that, a conclusion confirmed by a new study from the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. Pew surveyed over 48,000 people in 44 countries across the globe, asking them to rank five major threats — nuclear weapons, AIDS and other diseases, pollution and the environment, religious and ethnic hatred, and inequality  in order of importance; in other words, what worries them the most.

The results varied widely from region to region and country to country, but in most industrial or postindustrial nations, including the United States, inequality was the leading concern. Twenty-seven percent of Americans chose inequality as the greatest threat we face, with religious and ethnic hatred coming in second at 25% and nuclear weapons in third place at 23%. Pollution was a distant fourth at 15% and disease fifth at 7%.

As these results suggest, the average American understands that economic inequality, if unaddressed, puts the wellbeing of families at risk, undermines the social compact itself and could ultimately threaten the very survival of our democratic republic. Compared to the relatively tiny chance of death by terrorist attack or Ebola, the stakes involved in economic inequality are much higher, and much more easily addressed.

In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis wrote that “as long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills.” [Emphasis mine]

What "social ills" could the Holy Father mean? In addition to poverty itself, there’s abortion, which is disproportionately accessed by women on the economic margins of modern society; addictions of all kinds, which prey on the hopelessness of the poor; the collapse of marriage, which in the United States has become the single best predictor of poverty, especially among children; depression and suicide, especially among the young; and a host of other evils, including the rise of radical movements and political violence.

Economic inequality can be looked at in two ways: income and wealth. There is an intimate connection between the two, of course — in the same way that an income and expense statement is related to a balance sheet — but by either measure, the reality in the United States is grim and growing grimmer. On income, the gap between the bottom 90% of Americans and the top 10%, 1% and .01% is greater than it has been since 1928, the year before the onset of the Great Depression.

Between 1966 and 2011, the real income — that is, adjusted for inflation — of the bottom 90% grew by an average of $59. During the same period, real incomes for the top 10% grew by an average of $116,000, for the top 1% by $628,000, and for the top .01% by over $18 million. This trend has only accelerated since the Great Recession of 2008. In the past five years, virtually all gains in income have accrued to the top 10%, with the top 1% siphoning off 81% of that income. During that period,
average household income — that is, the average for all Americans — has steadily fallen year over year, from $53,644 in 2008 to just over $51,000 in 2012.

As might be expected, the numbers for wealth inequality track with income. According to studies cited in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, the top 1% of American households own 40% of American financial assets, and the top 10% own 75%. That leaves 25% for the bottom 90% of households. And the share of the nation’s wealth owned by the top .01% has quadrupled since the early 1980’s. Today, the top 16,000 households own $6 trillion in assets, more than the bottom two thirds of all Americans combined.

Pointing out these statistics isn’t sour grapes or sinful envy. Neither is it a wholesale indictment of capitalism. Between the 1930’s and the 1970’s the United States enjoyed a robust capitalist dynamism, but those 40 years also marked the highpoint of economic equality in America, resulting in the greatest middle class expansion in world history. (It is worth noting that government programs, including Social Security, the GI Bill, and the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae), the Rural Electrification Act, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Interstate Highway System, fueled much of that expansion.)

Economic inequality chafes at Americans because many of them have lived long enough or know someone who remembers when things were different: when good jobs were available with protections for workers; when a family could buy a house, a car, and send three or four kids to college on one income; when a single pension or Social Security was good enough for retirement.

Those days are gone, thanks to globalization, the financialization of the economy, automation and regulatory capture, among other factors. It is possible to restrain or even reverse the growth of inequality without doing fundamental harm to the economy itself, but that task belongs to government, which itself is an object of fear for many Americans these days. Still, Catholic Social Teaching uniquely charges government with responsibility for ensuring the common good, and the common good demands that government encourage the best aspects of capitalism, which lead to creativity and growth, while ameliorating its worst aspects, which result in exploitation and injustice, and thereby injure human freedom and dignity.

In Centisimus Annus, Pope St. John Paul II called for a capitalism that operates under a “strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious …” Such a framework would recognize that while a certain degree of inequality is a natural and even desirable feature of the capitalist system, grotesque imbalances between the few haves and the many have-nots must be addressed.

In the absence of such a framework, there is much to fear for all Americans, including, perhaps especially, for the rich themselves.

Mark Gordonis a partner at PathTree, a consulting firm focused on organizational resilience and strategy. He also serves as president of both the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Diocese of Providence, and a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Mark is the author of Forty Days, Forty Graces: Essays By a Grateful Pilgrim. He and his wife Camila have been married for 31 years and they have two adult children.

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