Usually poverty gets less attention from the media than global warming, which gets very little. Now the problem is on the front pages and trending on Twitter. Two weeks ago, Pope Francis issued a plea for income equality, and it was President Obama's turn to discuss poverty last week. Underpaid workers are mounting protests against Wal-Mart and the fast food industry. New Jersey, the District of Columbia and many municipalities have recently increased the minimum wage within their jurisdictions.
Middle-class families are mired in debt because their incomes haven't increased in the last 20 years while college, energy and health care costs have skyrocketed. Meanwhile, economic royalists are reaping the benefits of trickle-down economics as they harvest the lion's share of income growth.
The concentration of wealth has become such a problem that wealth is even concentrated among the wealthy. In the recent Forbes list of top earners, 6 of the richest 10 Americans were either Kochs or Waltons. You will find a family portrait of the Waltons beside the word selfish in the dictionary. The Walton family makes billions of dollars every year, but they can't reach deep enough into their pockets to pay the employees at Wal-Mart a living wage.
Two weeks ago, the pope made a strong statement about the evils of poverty. Pope Francis said "trickle down" economics is a "crude naïve belief in the goodness of those wielding economic power." Francis wasn't the first pope to weigh in on poverty. In the shade of economic abuses during the industrial age, Pope Pius VIII called for a "living wage" in his 1891 message "Rerum Novarum," which roughly translates from Latin into English as "On the New World." The economic deprivations of our time resemble the abuses of that era. Modern conservatives might note that the abuses of the industrial age led to the progressive populist presidencies of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. The policies of those two presidents were the foundation of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.
Pope Francis's pronouncement was strong enough to generate an attack from Rush Limbaugh, who described the pontiff's statement as "Marxist dogma." Limbaugh should be more careful about calling people names, because if the pope is a Marxist so is Jesus. I don't know if Rush ever reads the Bible, but he might want to check out the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of St. Matthew. In the sermon, Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven".
I went to Holy Cross High School in Flushing, Queens, in New York City. Flushing was the home of the famous blue collar fictional TV conservative, Archie Bunker. If Archie had had a talk radio show, he would have been Rush Limbaugh. Many of my schoolmates were from families like Archie's and had the same conservative beliefs.
One of my teachers was Brother Anthony Pepe. Brother Anthony was not preaching to the choir when he taught that the Gospel of St, Matthew was the gospel of social justice. I don't know if the good brother had an impact on my conservative classmates, but he made a strong impression on me. Jesus made it pretty clear the only people going to heaven were those who cared for the sick, hungry and infirm.
If tea partiers like Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., want to accuse Jesus of waging class warfare, so be it. The flip side of the Gospel of St. Matthew is Ryan's path to poverty budget. The Ryan budget would decimate social programs crucial to the lives of middle-class families and the survival of poor families. Ryan says his opposition to abortion is based is based on his Catholic faith but he completely ignores his church's teaching on poverty. I hope he paid attention to his spiritual leader when he spoke about the dangers of "unfettered capitalism" last month.