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Monday, July 25, 2005

Who are "the Least of These"?

"Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me... Truly I tell you, just as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." (Matthew 25: 34-40)

Last week, when I was talking about justice I referenced a paper published by the Heritage Foundation. My purpose in doing so was to show that even the poor in this country tend to have a better life than the truly impoverished in most of the world. I stand by that statement, as there is an obvious reason why the heart-jerking commercials on TV show kids from Africa (usually) rather than kids from New Jersey or Texas.

However, like many things that come from our conservative friends, the Heritage Foundation goes on to obfuscate the real need their report should point out.

For example, they don't point out a prime reason why the poor in America fare so well - the extensive social safety net that has been woven by the threads of Food Stamps, school lunch and breakfast programs, the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, Temporary Aid to Need Families, federal housing assistance, and federal health insurance programs. If these programs are taken away - and that does seem like the very real goal of many conservatives - the outlook for the poor of America worsens quickly.

But we have a very real obligation to more than just the poor. For starters, we can look at the debt we owe our military veterans who have service connected disabilities and problems. If we are to put any truth to the commandment to "honor thy father and they mother" then we have to add our elderly to the list.

Shouldn't any list of unfortunates also include the homeless? What about abused and neglected children? Those who are incarcerated - rightly or wrongly?

It's a very long list - and it could get much longer with very little effort.

All of these groups receive some level of support from the federal government - which means that they receive assistance from our tax dollars. And that, in turn, means that any attempt at tax reform and balancing the budget MUST take into consideration the fact that, for a large number of people, this assistance is the only way they are able to have a life of simple dignity.

And President Bush made a point of telling everyone that his budget priorities would do so. Unfortunately, like so much else this President has said - it simply wasn't true.

Meanwhile, wealthy Americans are called "over-taxed". Yet, this year, a record 7.5 million households will be classified as millionaires and control a combined $11 trillion in assets. How is it possible to over-tax our wealthy citizens and then have more of them after taxes than we had before taxes?

Here's an answer:

"One of the major contributors to the upper echelon of investors restoring their bank accounts has been the series of tax cuts enacted by the Bush administration since 2001, with the backing of Congressional Democrats. Besides cuts in income taxes skewed to the rich, taxes on dividends and investment gains have been slashed.

According to a New York Times analysis published on June 5, over 15 percent of the Bush-era tax breaks will go to the top one thousandth of total taxpayers. These 145,000 highest earners have incomes that start at $1.6 million apiece, and go to the sky from there.

The share of the national income allocated to this tiny elite has more than doubled in the last three decades. It has reached a level not seen since the 1920’s. No doubt their share has risen significantly since the year 2000, the latest that such figures were available."

In the next few years, real steps will have to be taken to bring the federal budget back into balance. It seems clear that any just tax system, any system supported by Christians, would have to be skewed heavily to recoup the gains made by the uber-wealthy during the first few years of this century. It also seems clear that expanding the security net should be a priority.

I honestly don't know how to state it any differently.

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