Tuesday, August 15, 2006

A Nation of Millionaires

The latest Harper's Index (Harper's Magazine, page 13, September 2006) contains a curious string of statistics--nothing new for the Index!

Let me quote:

"Percentage of Americans in 1983 who thought it was 'possible to start out poor in this country. . .and become rich' : 57

"Percentage who think this today : 80

"Percentage of U. S. income in 1983 and today, respectively, that went to the top 1 percent of earners : 9, 16"

Possibly it has always been this way in America, the Land of Opportunity; the nation of "self-made men" and, more recently, women, all eager to give the old heave-ho on the bootstraps in order to vault into the upperclass.

Trouble is, this just doesn't happen, at least not very often.

In fact, as the notion grows that such a move is possible, even likely; in reality the dream is more cruel illusion than ever before.

More and more of America's wealth finds its way into the hands of fewer and fewer of us in this country.

Yet, the myth remains a powerful motivator and a force for conservative thought and action (or inaction) among middle and underclass citizens. The idealism back of the idea serves as a powerful enforcer of the social, economic and political status quo.

The working poor seldom express interest in organizing to improve their lot. Low income Americans don't vote in significant numbers.

Religion moves alongside the American myth to direct everyone--rich and poor--to the afterlife.

Charity kicks in from time to time, when things seem particularly difficult, on a case-by-case basis. On we go as a people.

In each of the last five years it is estimated that over 1 million Americans have fallen below the poverty line. Again, that is over 1 million fellow citizens annually. The gap between rich and poor continues to widen with little chance of being closed any time soon.

Still, the myth of being able to make it, and make it big persists.

Fighting poverty must involve us in serious consideration of these facts of life in America today.


KentF said...

The only minor disagreement I might have is that suburban America is accumulating more stuff than ever before - from granite counter tops and $50,000 outdoor kitchens to Ipods for infants.

I read an interesting, but sad AP wire story in the paper a couple of days ago regarding scams going on in churches. The reason, at least in part I believe, that scams like these are on the rise is because greed is on the rise in churches, particularly the mega-churches where wealth, idolatry and the church being seen merely as the "vendor of religious goods and services" is so pronounced.

The article is sad in that the scammers are so successful in the church environment is because the wealth with ease (i.e. no effort) is the next logical step on the road to earthly success. In other words, church-goers in 2006 have worked very hard and accumulated some wealth, so isn't the next logical step to put some or all of this money in an investment vehicle that will double in the next 30 days? After all, look at the good I could do with the money. Jesus does not preach against money, but he sure had alot to say on the subject.

RC said...


I detect in your words an aversion to the afterlife. I am not quiet sure where you are going with this. Do you believe in an afterlife? If what you are doing is pointing out how this belief is abused then I am with you, but I would never want to discard this belief, because to do so would go against everything Paul says especially his words in I Cor. 15. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Actually it doesn't take a genius to become wealthy. It takes starting early as soon as one starts earning. The rule of 72 should be taught in every school. Every young person should understand compound interest and the simple secret to financial success. For example if you start at age 22 and put $100.00 a month in a IRA that grows at 10% a year you will have $865,000 at age 65. So for $3.30 a day you will be close to being a millionaire. I am sure most people waste that amount of money. We live in a great country, one shouldn't be so negative.

Larry James said...

RC, thanks for the question that allows me to clarify.

No, I do very much believe in afterlife.

It is just how the concept is used that bothers me so often. Those of us with wealth seem to believe that this life is not really what matters anyway. And that the poor will be taken care of "on the other side." The poor certainly take that message in and camp on it, often to the exclusion of action that could affect change in their "here and now." That was my only point.

I do believe that the other side of life is directly connected to this side and I believe scripture would confirm that.

Marx said that religion served as the opiate of the masses. In many respects, I believe he was correct. The way I read the Bible, faith could be that force that energizes the poor to organize, advocate and act for more just and equitable social arrangements, especially given the benefits of our rich heritage of democracy.

Larry James said...

Anonymous 9:28, thanks for your post.

What you say is correct. . .for the middle class and for those with access to what your describe.

I would love for you to come down and sit in our Resource Center and visit with the people who come here daily. Or, go by our medical clinic or our public interest law firm. We are dealing with folks at the very bottom who don't have $3.33 a day to spare.

Poverty is a world that most Americans cannot comprehend. Forgive me if I sound negative. I simply observe the results on a daily basis. But then, Jesus tended to be a bit negative about the subject himself on occasion.

Mike said...

Excellent post, Larry. It's so easy for someone to say "anyone can move from poverty to wealth." This myth allows us to keep stockpiling and consuming while pretending that everyone who wants to do well can. That kind of ignorance (intentional or not) about the forces of economics in this fallen world is crippling.

Larry James said...

Mike, well said.

The assumption that the poor are poor simply because of something they did or didn't do, is the worst sort of middle class naivete.

RC said...


Very well put. I would have been totally shocked if you would have said that you did not believe in an afterlife. I am glad that you mentioned Marx. Even though I think he was very misguided I think his often quoted assessment of religion is unfortunatly dead on. I think that there is a real challange to somehow manage a balancing act. I resist a pure social gospel that dismisses notions of atonement and the centrality of the cross, but I also hate a more evangelical form of Christianity that thinks our only duty is to save the lost. There is just too much in scripture about justice in the here and now to allow us to focus only on the "sweet by and by."

MommyHAM said...

Fighting poverty must involve us in serious consideration of these facts of life in America today.

Ahh, but Larry, my tongue-in-cheek-just-got-a-nasty-letter-response is that people just don't care to consider the serious, just scoping out the seriously superficial.

I'm sorry....I'm discouraged, and I need prayers to even feel like there is a chance to address these things called poverty and prejudice.

You're a good example to me, for what it's worth :) Surely you get the ugly responses from time to time - what do you do?

Anonymous said...

With the exception of poor health, not related to drugs or alcohol, I think one could make a good case that individuals are poor either because of something they did or didn't do. That takes in a lot of territory. That doesn't mean they should not be helped.

Anonymous said...


I am finding out just how expensive it is to help the poor. A buddy of mine and I spearhead a ministry to the poor where we church. We have begun to help an ailing "crack hoe" get sobered up and seek treatment. She is very willing and excited for the future just now.

However, she has nothing. Not even identification. We found her a room across town from her street. We got her food. We call and drop in on her to help fight her loneliness. We take her to different charitible services for more food, for personal hygenes, and to court to find out if she has warrents and to use her mug shot as an ID for other services.

I cannot imagine facing all those needs alone. A bus ride costs $2 a day, and that is no way to carry 5 bags of groceries from across town, and stop in the courthouse with. She needs help from church people. But the whole venture puts me out money too, even though I did not buy the groceries.

I think If I were that bad off, I'd throw in the towel, unless I had loving help -someone I felt confident in that they care for me.

Not exactly corresponding to your post, but related.

A different anonymous

MommyHAM said...

Anonymous 5:17 - that's a pretty bold, and horribly ignorant statement, not to mention pretty darned self-righteous. Oh, people do that to themselves, but I'm not above going to the rescue as their savior because I made the right choices and am able to help. We're not called to be anyone's savior, Someone Else has that covered. We are called to love people regardless of the issue at hand.

We need to get over ourselves, and just act with kindness without trying to analyze the whys. What if that poor person, living in seemingly self-inflicted poverty were JEsus himself, trying to make sure you've got His message right?

David Michael said...


It seems to me that the gap between the entry level worker and the CEO of major corporations is a reflection of our lack of values. Pro-athletes and entertainers also fall into that catagory. It is a tragedy for example how little someone working for a sports team makes compared to the players.

bpb said...

Anonymous: are you nuts? Since when does anyone earn 10%/year on a CD? And that's taking into effect if you have any extra money left after rent, utilities, and gas. It seems more and more people are living day by day under the current administration. Gone are the days of surplus . . .

Larry James said...

Mommyham, people like this must find ways to avoid "the elephant in the room." So, they focus on the messenger of truth and try to tear her down. Don't sweat it or people like this. . .poor souls--put 'em on your prayer list and keep on trucking.

Yes, I do get discouraged and I do receive such letters, comments, etc. And I do want to strike back--sometimes I do strike back.

I have learned it is best to regard such as confirmation of being rooted in a truth that needs to be spoken. "Beware when all men/women speak well of you. . ." something about false prophets comes to me from deep in my memory and soul!

You are right on! Stay there.