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Posted by on Oct 29, 2010

Hearing the Cry of the Poor

“The Lord hears the cry of the poor, Blessed be the Lord.” (Psalm 34)

We hear and sing these words from Psalm 34 at various times throughout the year, but I wonder how often we really heed them.  We are too easily tempted to focus on eternal rewards and happiness after death for those who suffer poverty here in this life – the rich man and Lazarus, for example. Such a focus may give some comfort to the suffering. It allows the one who may not be able to change the social realities to rest easier, assuming all will balance out in the end. But I don’t think that’s what it’s all about!

The psalm doesn’t say, “The Lord will hear…” It says, “The Lord hears…” That means here and now. Somehow I can’t believe that the Lord is very happy with folks who allow children to go to bed hungry or to die of illnesses that could be prevented with basic health care.

Structural factors in societies create barriers that effectively deny people the opportunity to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” Those without boots don’t have bootstraps on which to pull.

One simple exercise  (called “The Scramble”) that makes the reality of structural inequalities tangible goes this way. Take 100 pennies and scatter them on the floor. Three groups of people then have the chance to pick up as many pennies as they can. The catch is that only a few of them can use their bare hands. A larger group wear mittens on their hands. The third group, the largest group by far, must pick up their pennies with a spoon.

You can imagine which group will collect the most pennies and which the least.

Something of this nature is going on in countries all over the world. Emmanuel Saez, winner of one of this year’s MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grants,” has studied the relationship between tax policy and income in the United States. He notes that the top 1% of Americans earn 24% of all income. The earned income of the top one-tenth of 1% of Americans (approximately 310,000 people) equals that of the bottom 120 million people.   Yet those high earners only pay as much in taxes on their income as ordinary workers pay.

Folks caught on the middle and lower economic rungs are unhappy about today’s economic realities. Those paying the larger proportion of taxes wonder if they’re getting their money’s worth. Tea Party slogans ring true to many of these folks.

Economists tell us that economic gains, including reduction of the unemployment rate and recovery of the housing market, following the Great Recession will remain slow through 2011. There’s not going to be a quick fix for the situation in which we find ourselves.

As we Americans go to the polls to vote in this mid-term election, I hope and pray that we’ll remember that as hard as economic times are for people at all levels of income, they’re more desperate for those on the lower rungs of income and the unemployed. No matter what we do, it will take time to move back to prosperity. We must not forget or refuse to care for the poor, the children, the less fortunate among us.

“The Lord hears the cry of the poor…”

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