The Perils of Inequality



The architecture of the poor is crumbling. On the tables of the rich are delicacies from everywhere. The scraps are thrown to the poor. In the ocean of plenty the majority are rudderless. Pope Francis says that inequality is a social evil. The United Nations calls it the paradox of our times. Its Millennium Development Goals stipulates that the eradication of poverty will be high on the agenda and with good reason.

The statistics for inequality, the gap between the rich and the poor make depressing reading. In the two decades between 1990 and 2010 income inequality increased by over 11 per cent and the trend is for more increases in the future. The Economic Policy Institute states that in 2017, ‘the chief executives of America’s top 350 companies earned 312 times more than their workers.’

Economists have suggested that one of the main ways of narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor is to empower the latter with greater spending. But with 75 per cent of the population living in societies where incomes are unevenly distributed it is difficult to see how the imbalance could be fixed.

The disparity in purchasing power and the prevalence of fragile social institutions mean that the majority is excluded from participation in formal economic structures. This can have devastating implications for policy and development. For example, when one in every five persons is earning less than $1.25 per day what can be set aside for the rainy day? Where would the funding for education, health, housing and other basic needs be provided? But there are other problems as well.

According to the United Nations, ‘one in every four children under age five has inadequate height for his or her age.’ Stunted growth is as result of malnutrition and the UN figures show that 162 million young children are currently suffering from under-nutrition. As if there are not enough to disrupt the pattern of living, social and economic planners worry that wars and conflicts can cause displacement. The UN tells us that every day in 2013, 32,000 people had to abandon their homes to seek protection due to some war or conflict.

What is omitted in many of the official reports is the impact conflicts have on women. There is no question that women face tremendous dangers during wars as they try to provide for and to nurture their families. Gone are the days when women hold up half the sky. In a good many cases they are the universe. Women have to walk for miles to fetch water or gather to provide food or face violence of various kinds, not knowing from whence the next meal will come.

The World Bank says that gender equality is one of the most pressing issues to confront governments. Given the parlous state of governance in many countries the question is: what does the papacy have to do with development? The Vatican is one of the richest pieces of real estate on the planet. Millions of Catholics face poverty as well but the response of the Vatican for action has not been given sufficient attention in the literature.

The Vatican has long been shut off from the realities of the world. However, a revolution in the Papacy occurred under Pope John Paul the Second. This pontiff decided to address the issue of inequality and to actually do something about it. He realized that the United States with its 5 per cent of the world’s population consumes 40 per cent of the world’s resources. The Pope argued that this imbalance needed to be addressed.

But Pope John Paul went further. In 2005, he spoke at Yankee Stadium in New York and in his homily he said the rich should treat the poor ‘like guests at your family table.’ He called for the globalization of solidarity and for the market to be regulated so that basic needs would be met for all. Pope John Paul saw the poor in the midst of plenty as an anathema and asked, ‘ How can it be that even today there are still people dying of hunger? Condemned to illiteracy? Lacking the most basic medical care? Without a roof over their heads?’ He concluded that society would be judged in the way it treats the poor, the weak, the vulnerable and the voiceless.

In July 2005, Pope John Paul spoke in Scotland around the same time that the G8 Summit was held at Gleneagles. The Pope spoke to the ‘Make Poverty History’ rally and urged the world leaders to cancel the debts of poor countries. The leaders agreed to forgive the debts of a number of countries in the sum of more than $40billion. This was a small start but it showed that the Papacy can be influential.

If economic activity and commercial logic alone cannot solve all the problems what is the solution? Pope Benedict recommended that we re-plan our journey. This opened the door for Pope Francis to enter. Pope Francis spent years working in the slums of Argentina and rose to the rank of Bishop of Buenos Aires. He is aware of the plight of the poor and the perils of inequality. He has made it clear that he would like to see opening up of more opportunities for the poor.

Pope Francis has criticized the ‘idolatry of money’ and the unfettered markets that exclude the participation of the poor. This exclusion would lead to a new tyranny. But perhaps his most telling observation concerns his idea about trickle-down economics. According to Pope Francis, ‘ Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.’ This has not worked, says Pope Francis, as the excluded are still waiting. Pope Francis wants money to serve and not to rule. He wants the rich to help the poor, and a church that is poor and for the poor and one that ministers to the marginal in society.

The homily of the Pope has struck a sensitive nerve, particularly in the United States. A number of politicians, including those that ran in the 2016 presidential elections, are speaking about bridging the gap between the rich and the poor. Speaker Paul Ryan, for instance, says that he upholds Catholic traditions and he puts people first. In England there is talk of a mansion tax to get the rich to pay up. But Pope Francis has his critics.

The billionaire investor Kenneth Langone has stated that he and his wealthy friends might stop their donations to the Catholic Church if the Pope continues his attack on capitalism. It will be recalled that Mr. Langone was mentioned in the overpayment of Richard de Grasso, the former president of the New York Stock Exchange. Mr. de Grasso received $190 million in deferred compensation under the watch of Mr. Langone. It is suggested that since Mr. Langone is a free spender and lobbies the Republican Party his views and money can undermine the work of the Vatican.
Pope Francis has also been described as a Marxist by some of his critics. He has responded by saying that people expected the cup to overflow and benefit the poor but as he says it ‘magically got bigger and left out the poor. In any event the poor has been mentioned many times in the gospel and even Marxists are good people.’

It is clear that poverty will be on the agenda of Pope Francis in the years ahead. What is needed is for all religions to meet at the United Nations, to declare ‘war’ on poverty and to have the leaders of the world accountable to ordinary people. This would be a good first step.


The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of THE WEST INDIAN.