I was one of about twenty-five religious leaders President-elect George W. Bush invited to talk with him about his faith-based initiative in December, 2000, right after the election was decided. I had been intrigued by his call for compassionate conservatism. That day, he told us there is a poverty of the soul and a poverty of the wallet. I agreed with him that faith-based groups are much better at correcting the first. But government, he said, can help with the poverty of the wallet. I was cautiously hopeful.
What happened? Vastly less than he promised, as David Kuo has recently pointed out. But what is the actual situation today? If the President were to give an honest "State of the Union on Poverty," what would he have to tell the richest nation in human history about poverty here and abroad? The U.S. has the highest level of poverty of any industrialized nation. 12.5 percent (35.9 million) of all Americans fall below the federal poverty level of $19,157 for a family of four. The number of Americans in poverty has jumped by more than a million every year from 2001-2003. We have millions of Americans working full-time all year round without earning enough to escape poverty. At $5.15 per hour, the minimum wage is not enough to enable a parent with children to even get close to escaping poverty. Forty-five million Americans lack health insurance-and the number keeps growing each year. The U.S. is the only industrialized nation that does not guarantee health insurance to all its people. As the number of poor, uninsured Americans expands, the rich get much richer. From 1979-2001, the after-tax income of the richest one percent grew by 139 percent (from $294,300 to $703,100) while the bottom 20 percent saw a meager gain of 8.
5 percent, from $13,000 to $14,000 (it was 14.8 percent for the second 20 percent and 16.8 percent for the middle 20 percent). Already in 2000, the U.S. was the most unequal society of all industrialized nations. (In fact, the richest one percent have more wealth than the bottom 90 percent!) The Bush tax cuts made it worse. For the richest nation in human history-a nation which claims a Judeo-Christian heritage-that is a moral outrage. Surely there ought to be a moral consensus across all religious faiths and political parties that every American who works full-time year-round in a responsible way will escape poverty and enjoy affordable health coverage. What is the global picture? We have made significant progress in the last few decades. In 1970, 35 percent of all the people in the developing world experienced chronic malnourishment. Today, that figure is only 17 percent. Asia is the primary reason for the improvement. Africa has more poverty today. The percentage of poor people in Latin America has changed very little for several decades. But the widespread embrace of market economies throughout Asia has led to rapid economic growth and a rapid decline of poverty. Solid growth in health care has also occurred.
In 1980, only about 20 percent of the children in developing countries received immunization for basic childhood diseases like polio and measles. Today the figure is about 80 percent. In spite of this progress, 30,000 children still die every day of starvation or diseases we know how to prevent. That's 210,000 a week-more than all those killed in the recent Asian tsunami. Dramatic headlines produced momentary generosity for those devastated by the raging seas, but we largely ignore the weekly tsunami of dying children, year after year. The World Bank reports that 1.2 billion people try to survive on one dollar a day. Another 1.6 billion have only two dollars a day. The 20 percent of the world's people living in the richest nations are seventy-four times richer than those in the poorest. And we have learned over the past several decades what kinds of economic assistance by rich countries can dramatically reduce poverty in poor nations. We know what to do. So what do we do? We spend more on golf each year than it would take, over eight years, to prevent 30 million poor people from dying of AIDS. As we have grown richer decade by decade, all the rich nations have given less and less as a percentage of GNP to help poor nations escape poverty.
President Bush has substantially increased U.S. funding to fight poverty and AIDS in the developing world, but the U.S. still stands at the very bottom of all industrialized nations in the percentage of GNP (.14%) it spends on foreign economic assistance. What would an honest evaluation of President Bush's impact on domestic poverty look like? I think that what he has done in the faith-based initiative is important and potentially historic. Some poverty is due to a "poverty of the soul"-broken people make bad choices about drugs, sex, alcohol, work and marriage, and the result is social decay and poverty. Bush's policies have leveled the playing field and substantially removed the barriers that wrongly prevented deeply religious faith-based organizations from accessing government funds for their effective social programs in things like job training and drug rehab. The changes allow faith-based programs to raise private funds for their specifically religious activities and access government funds for other things in a way that enables them to uniquely combine inner spiritual and outer socio-economic transformation. All of us-poor people and society generally-win.