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Poverty in America vs. income inequality

By Scott Tibbs, August 29, 2011

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's. -- Exodus 20:17

We're hearing a lot about poverty, especially in an economy that is admittedly terrible. But what is poverty? Is poverty defined in absolute terms (such as the ability to have enough food) or is poverty relative to income statistics? If it is the latter, then poverty means nothing. In America, our poor are rich compared to the rest of the world. (For more, see Heritage Foundation studies from 2007 and 2011, along with columns by Walter Williams and John Goodman.)

First, let me say that real poverty exists. There are people who are legitimately poor in measurable terms. So please don't accuse me of denying the reality of poverty. I don't.

But it is absolutely critical that we have firm standards by which to judge poverty, rather than worrying about one of the Left's boogeymen, "income inequality." A quick Internet search reveals a mountain of commentary about "income inequality." (See here, here and here for examples.)

But the reality is that poverty and income inequality are not the same.

As an example, let's say Bubba makes $250,000 a year. Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning will make an average of $18 million a year over the next few seasons. That's certainly income inequality. But does anyone feel sorry for Bubba? I don't.

I'm frankly disturbed by the rhetoric about "income inequality" as if that's something bad in and of itself. I do not make a Peyton Manning income and never will, but I am more than satisfied with what I have. I don't begrudge Manning his mega-millions. After all, the Colts are willing to pay him that salary and no one forced them to do so.

But to many on the Left, the fact that there is a large income gap between rich and "poor" is a huge problem that threatens our economic system and even our liberty.


There are many people who are so obsessed with the fact that someone else has more that they are unable look at what they actually have and enjoy the blessings that they have been given in this life. Someone may have a nice computer, cable television with 100 channels, high-speed Internet access, a nice home with central air conditioning, and plenty of food in the pantry, refrigerator and freezer. Yet he or she is still unable to enjoy it because he or she cannot afford the bigger and better things someone else has.

This whining about income inequality should be rejected. Class warfare rhetoric leads to bad economic policy. Instead of doing what is actually economically beneficial, opportunistic politicians promise to "soak the rich" - as if punishing someone for having more actually helps anyone. All that does is ferment social unrest that actually does threaten liberty.

As Christians, we should recognize that using "income inequality" to stir discontent is a direct violation of the 10th Commandment. Furthermore, we are commanded to be thankful throughout Scripture. How can we be thankful when we are constantly unhappy that someone else has more than we do? It is shameful - and sinful.