There are 20.5 million Americans living in extreme poverty, surviving on less than $9,000 for a family of three. There are 6.3 million people depending solely on food stamps for income. While 79 percent of single mothers who head households have jobs, a person working full time at minimum wage still falls 22 percent below the poverty line for a one-parent, two-child family. Thus 41 percent of single mothers live in poverty. All told, 46.2 million Americans are impoverished, including 16 million children (21.9 percent of all American children). And 3.5 million people are homeless.
By contrast, the wealthiest 1 percent controls nearly 42 percent of the wealth. The 400 wealthiest citizens have wealth equivalent to the bottom 150 million citizens. Average CEO compensation is at least 185 times greater than the pay of the average worker. Ninety-three percent of recent income growth has gone to the top 1 percent. And Sam Walton’s six heirs own as much wealth as the bottom 100 million Americans.
With these statistics, the U.S. ranks worse than 93 of 136 countries on the CIA’s index of income inequality. We are on par with Iran, Uganda and the Philippines. We keep similar company when graded on social ills that correlate consistently with high levels of income inequality: teen pregnancy, infant mortality, violence, imprisonment, drug use, poor educational performance and restricted economic mobility.
We cannot ignore these realities. We ought to love others even as we love ourselves. We ought to seek the flourishing of all. As Cornel West insists, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” We plan to vote for justice.
Romney believes that “we have a safety net there” for the very poor. But the safety net is shredded. Since 1996, Americans have no legal right to welfare. Consequently, in 2008, only 36 percent of eligible families received welfare assistance. In six states, less than 10 percent of eligible families received welfare, and only six states provided benefits to half or more of eligible recipients. Welfare benefits amount to less than half of the poverty line in all 50 states. Life on welfare is neither as prevalent nor as comfortable as pundits allege. Not surprisingly, impoverished women, motivated by economic hardship, account for 75 percent of all abortions.
We have witnessed the human reality behind these statistics. Repairing the safety net is something we can do to love others as we love ourselves. We should empower our next president to do the following:
Provide universal health care. The United Nations recognized this as a basic human right in 1948. In 2011, 48.6 million Americans were uninsured. But Romney will repeal Obamacare; he believes that ER visits provide adequate health care for the uninsured.
Decrease defense spending. Use the savings to care for the poor. A two percent reduction in our $711 billion military budget could nearly double federal welfare protections. But Romney will increase defense spending and will offset the increase with cuts to programs that serve the poor, like LSC, CPB, Title X and Davis-Bacon.
Raise the marginal income tax rate above 35 percent for the wealthiest. This rate was once 94 percent (1944-45). Its 100-year average is 57.6 percent. Even under Reagan, it averaged 51 percent. Raising this rate would generate significant revenues for repairing the safety net and would offset some deleterious effects of inequality, including the economic motivators of abortion. But Romney will decrease tax rates, creating a deficit unless the economy grows 4 percent annually. Since no Republican president in modern history has maintained a 4-percent growth rate, the Romney plan will increase the deficit, under fund programs that help the poor and exacerbate inequality.
We could say much more, but these minimal claims will have to suffice to demonstrate why we believe that Romney won’t secure justice for “the least of these.”
Shawn Graves and David Mills are philosophy professors at Cedarville.