As a child, I remember hearing in church the story of Lazarus and the rich man. I recall cringing at the idea that someone could be that insensitive to the suffering of another; that an individual could turn away from human pain that was situated just outside their door. Since that time I have lived some and I have learned some and witnessed even more. I now know, all too well, the depths of callousness that we humans can sink to. I must admit, however, that I didn’t envision a time where the aforementioned story would itself, be turned so upside-down that it is almost unrecognizable. What does that mean? It means that by social and political tone; by court decision and governmental policy, we have essentially positioned the rich man comfortably in the lap of Abraham and cruelly thrust Lazarus into the flames of hell. In other words… to hell with Lazarus.
In recent years we have seen a solidifying of the wealthiest Americans economic power, which has always been a feature in American society, while simultaneously witnessing a decline in workers’ income. Additionally, we have seen an increase of those living in poverty as well. These set of circumstances encapsulates the interconnected issues of how we as a society subsidize the wealthiest Americans & corporations and at the same time through indifference, neglect and policy have, effectively, said to hell with Lazarus to the middle/working class and the poor of America.
Not All Welfare is Created Equal
Years ago, in my essay, Losing What We Never Had, I wrote in detail the extent to which corporate America (my piece covers the early 1990’s) depended upon subsidies and how many then laid-off thousands of workers. They said, in effect, give us your millions and billions and let us make thousands of you unemployed. This is the same attitude that we see today. We have, basically, given billions of dollars to Big Business and the wealthiest Americans and have simultaneously seen record unemployment, a stagnant living-wage and an increase in the numbers of those living below the poverty line.
We call programs such as Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security welfare and entitlements. Aren’t loopholes, subsidies and breaks, which were not paid for, the same as programs designed to help the most vulnerable citizens in our society? And if these benefits for the wealthy and corporations are as intractable as some say they are, then how is not an entitlement? The rich and powerful have, rather effectively, controlled the conversation and the language used in the conversation. They are allowed to be safe behind, comparatively, inoffensive words such as tax-breaks and subsidies, while the poor and struggling are anchored with welfare and entitlements ---same thing, different words.
So, when Orrin Hatch, from the floor of the Senate in 2011, declares that "the poor have to bear more of the burden," from what stone in the above mentioned set of circumstances does he want this economic blood to come from? Senator Hatch, in effect, said to hell with Lazarus. His view is not that dissimilar from the view of the rich man in the account of Christ. It is a blind and cold indifference to real human pain and suffering.
How much more can the 14.1 million unemployed; the 43.6 million living below the poverty line and the vast majority of the working & middles class whose wages have been stagnant for about the last 30 years, contribute? Conversely, the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans now have a larger share of total income than they ever have in records going back nearly a century — an even larger amount than during the Roaring Twenties, the last time the US saw such similar disparities in wealth. To put this in greater perspective, in 2006, due to the Bush tax cuts, households in the middle 20 percent received $448. Families in the top 1 percent received $39,020. And households in the top 0.1 percent received $200,523. What did households in the bottom 20 percent receive? Twenty-three dollars.
Yet, it is the ones overwhelmed by circumstances created in large part by those who received the aforementioned $200,000 in 2006 (from the entitlement program of unbudgeted tax-cuts) who receive the stigma of the “welfare” label. They are sent the not so subtle message of to hell with Lazarus. No, it isn’t the pirates of Wall Street; nor is it the loophole & subsidy-happy corporations that are regulated to the Hades of economic sacrifice, but rather it is the poor, the working and the middle class that are banished to the flames. They are the ones who are told, to hell with Lazarus, while the wealthy live in a paradise of exemption.
Haven Help Us
As more ways are being devised to defund programs that are crucial to those who are being hardest hit by this economic crisis, the rich are hoarding and illegally hiding income in tax havens. In July of 2008, before the November elections, there was a report released by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, titled: Tax Haven Banks and U.S. Tax Compliance. It detailed how tax haven banks, through secrecy and misconduct, helped U.S. clients hide their assets --- cheating the country out of about 100 billion dollars a year. Not much was done at time or indeed is being done now. The rich man must and will be protected and usually at the expense of Lazarus. It appears that it is much more feasible to deprive Lazarus of the crumbs than to deny the rich man any part of any meal.
In 2007, at a $4,600-per-seat fund raiser in New York for Senator Hillary Clinton, Warren Buffet stood up and told the crowd, "The 400 of us [here] pay a lower part of our income in taxes than our receptionists do, or our cleaning ladies, for that matter. If you're in the luckiest 1 per cent of humanity, you owe it to the rest of humanity to think about the other 99 per cent." As an example, he noted that he was taxed at 17.7 per cent on the $46 million he made in 2006, while his secretary, who made $60,000, was taxed at 30 per cent. Buffet’s statement stands out as much for its rarity as it does its honesty.
It is also estimated, that anywhere between 10 and 20 trillion U.S. dollars is in some sort of offshore tax haven or tax shelter. The various ways in which the wealthy and powerful corporations are allowed to skirt shouldering more of the responsibility when it comes to alleviating the financial suffering of our nation is disturbing. It seems so little is asked of those who have gained so much --- and the very thought of doing so is considered sacrilege by some --- how do we then extort further sacrifice from all those Lazraruses in dire straits?
The Whole World In Their Hands?
I’d like to call our attention to the numbers in regard to how much of the wealth of this country that the top 5 percent hold. The following statistics are from a Federal Reserve Board report from 2006:
•The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans owned 33.4 percent of the wealth in 2004, up from 30.1 percent in 1989.
•The wealthiest 5 percent of Americans held 55.5 percent of the wealth in 2004.
•The poorest 50 percent of the American population collectively owned 2.5 percent of the wealth in 2004, down from 3.0 percent in 1989.
•The very wealthiest 1 percent of Americans now own a bigger piece of the pie (33.4 percent) than the poorest 90 percent put together (30.4 percent).
•The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans owned 62.3 percent of the business assets in 2004.
•The wealthiest 5 percent collectively owned 88.7 percent of business assets.
•The wealthiest 5 percent also owned 93.7 percent of the value of bonds, 71.7 percent of nonresidential real estate, and 79.1 percent of the value of stocks.
What these numbers suggest is that we might have well become more of an oligarchy than a democracy. When the super-rich holds this much of the wealth of the nation, how much room is there for our interests and concerns? What price does a democracy pay when so much power is concentrated in so few hands? There are some, in the highest halls of government, who see absolutely nothing wrong with this imbalance --- is it because a great many of them benefit from it? This too, is very much in keeping with the attitudes held by the rich man: it seemed perfectly fine to him that the dogs were the prime contributors of comfort for Lazarus.
Wealth, of the magnitude described here, gives these individuals access to our nation’s decision-makers in ways that the average citizen could only dream of, let alone the poor. John Adams said, Riches attract the attention, consideration and congratulations of mankind, one might also add the devotion of politicians as well. In a society of increasing economic disparity and elected officials beholden to those wealthy interests, how is the cry of Lazarus heard?
There may be some who will charge me with inciting class warfare. To do so, however, would be to turn a blind eye to the one that has been taking place for quite a long time and has escalated in recent years --- and the poor, working and middle classes didn’t initiate it.
Yes, it is class warfare and it comes down to the WMDs of their millions and billions against the sticks and stones of our nickel and dimes; it is the Special Forces of their lobbyists, against the troop of boy scouts of our collective voices.
There are times when an argument is so clear that it would be tantamount to criminal negligence to ignore it; and that argument is this: it is better to tell someone that the yacht they want to purchase has to be 10 feet shorter than to cut money that goes to the education of a child in poverty; it is better to tell someone that they may have to forgo purchasing their fourth or fifth home than to tell someone they have to choose between their medications or eating; it is better to tell someone that they have to settle for the Mercedes with less options than to tell someone they have three less weeks of unemployment insurance than expected. It is, for me, that simple
At this moment there are millions of Lazraruses right outside the doors of the Capitol Building and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue seeking relief from the stifling conditions of this economy and they have been there for quite some time. I imagine that the rich man did a great deal of rationalizing, denying and justifying: Lazarus deserves to be where he is; if Lazarus would just show some initiative; Lazarus can’t expect ME to solve his problems.
To allow those upside down and backwards rationalizations to stand, would be the most resounding to hell with Lazarus of all.