Economic inequality is gaining on us. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the richest 20 percent of Americans have experienced much faster income growth than the poorest 80 percent over the past 30 years, with the incomes of the richest 1 percent of Americans rising fastest of all. Inequality of wealth, the total value of an individual’s property minus debts, is even greater than income inequality. The Economic Policy Institute reports that while the poorest 90 percent of U.S. households combined owns only 23.3 percent of total national wealth, 35.4 percent of all wealth is controlled by just the wealthiest 1 percent of US households. According to a 2011 Harvard Business School study, most U.S. Americans underestimate the level of inequality in the U.S. But there’s reason to hope that change is possible: most of those surveyed think the ideal distribution of U.S. wealth would be closer to that of more egalitarian Sweden.
Far from a U.S.-only problem, economic inequality is growing faster in recent years across the globe. Reporting on U.S. inequality in 2013, Alex Henderson, a writer for the website Alternet, called the U.S. a banana republic, using a derogatory term for an unequal and unstable society that tends to be applied to nations with histories of colonial occupation. However, as Henderson points out in his article, many African, Asian and Latin American nations in fact report levels of inequality far lower than that of the United States. Egypt, Kenya, India, Iran, Nicaragua, Pakistan, the Philippines and Timor-Leste are just some of the poorer nations with lower Gini coefficients (a measurement of societal inequality) than that of the US.
To be sure, not everyone agrees that inequality itself is an urgent issue, and this view goes beyond free-market thinkers who might view inequality as inevitable and even salutary. If we can address the suffering of the poor, some Christians argue, who cares how distant from their standard of living are the lifestyles of the rich?
I can think of two major reasons that people of good will choose to focus on inequality. The first is that economic inequality tends to accompany inequalities in access to goods such as health care, education and even life span, and it outrages moral sensibility to see that the benefits possible in all these spheres are not available to all. This seems to be the most common reason for theological ethicists to attend to inequality, as Kenneth R. Himes and I found when we reviewed recent scholarship for Theological Studies. The second is that inequality can make economies more volatile, which impacts everybody, but especially hurts those who are already poor. This is the reason business elites at the 2014 World Economic Forum in Davos named inequality the biggest risk to the global economy of the next decade, but theologians embrace the view as well—in fact, Benedict XVI mentions it in Caritas in Veritate (#32).
Pope Francis is well known as a fiery critic of societal and global inequality, perhaps most memorably in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. The U.S. bishops also addressed the issue in their 2013 Labor Day letter, releasing a useful video that offers several steps to lessen inequality, including raising the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation, and ending wage theft. NETWORK, the Catholic social justice organization, pushes for increased economic equity in federal budgets and international trade agreements. When justice advocates address inequality as a reality distinct from, though clearly related to, other issues including poverty and globalization, they act out of conviction that economic inequality harms the common good, as I described above.
In my view, a good deal of advocacy around inequality, including that of religious leaders, avoids one of the more important questions we should be asking: how does inequality affect our moral formation? For many of us, it’s easy to find common cause with those who are like us and more difficult to feel empathy for others who we may perceive as more distant. This adds urgency to the question of whether it matters if, for example, a CEO earns 100 times or 100,000 times what her lowest-paid employees do, even supposing the employees earn a living wage. Do we really think vastly different living standards have no impact on our ability to form solidarity with one another?
Many theologians hold that inequality does, indeed, impact our moral formation and that this is another compelling reason for concern about the issue. In a searing article, Olubiyi Adeniyi Adewale interprets the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Lk 16:19-31) from an African perspective. In African belief and in the worldview of the New Testament, dogs who lick the sores of the sick help them heal. By doing less for Lazarus than the dogs who tended him, the rich man reveals himself as lower than a dog, less than human. Adewale draws forth a powerful indictment of those who allow their wealth and power to blunt their solidarity towards those in need. Bryan N. Massingale charges U.S. culture with a “cultured indifference” to the poor, nurtured by racism, individualism, and consumerism, which sustains inequality. In her new book, Lisa Sowle Cahill suggests that inequality harms civic virtue, but holds out hope for improvement through changed religious and social stories and practices. (The Hunger Games franchise is one such social story that has already drawn immense attention to the moral impact of inequality. If avid readers and viewers did not on some level agree that in the context of great inequality, wealth and power can breed cruelty while imposed poverty can generate desperation, not only would the story cease to compel, it would make no sense.) And recently at the Catholic Moral Theology blog, Julie Rubio and Meghan Clark draw attention to a troubling lack of sympathy for the poor in U.S. public life. Surely our growing inequality is linked to this disappointing reality.
Religious efforts to combat inequality drew attention from an unexpected source when Microsoft founder Bill Gates linked his philanthropy to faith in a recent interview, saying, “I’ve been very lucky, and therefore I owe it to try and reduce the inequity in the world. And that’s kind of a religious belief.” Gates might give religion too much credit here—certainly religious adherents are not alone when they oppose today’s great inequalities, even when they do so out of a sense of gratitude for good fortune. But one unique way theologians and religious leaders can, and do, contribute to ongoing conversation about inequality is by raising up the importance of inequality’s impact on moral formation. We may already know that inequality hinders the poor from leading good lives, but we are still coming to understand how it impacts everyone in unequal societies as we strive to become good people.
Kate Ward is a doctoral candidate and Flatley Fellow in Theological Ethics at Boston College. Her dissertation explores the effects of privilege, particularly wealth privilege, on virtue formation in the context of growing inequality.