by Myra Saturen
February 08, 2013
With compassion, conviction and steadfast passion, Sister Simone Campbell held a conversation at Northampton Community College (NCC) on February 7 about income disparity and the challenges we face as a nation to acknowledge and correct this injustice.
Campbell is the executive director of NETWORK, a Catholic organization involved in education, lobbying, and organizing around economic and social justice issues in the United States. She is the leader of "Nuns on the Bus," the group that traveled throughout the country last summer, speaking out against the Paul Ryan budget, which would have further cut federal funds for human services. As part of a lifetime of social advocacy, Campbell is a leader of the Conference of Women Religious and a proponent of Faithful Budget.org, an interfaith initiative.
Ironically, Nuns on the Bus came about through the Vatican's criticism of the Leadership Conference of Women's Religious's emphasis on social advocacy. By chance, this censure happened to precede the 40th anniversary of the conference and a discussion of its mission. It also followed two years of the group's largely unnoticed opposition to the Ryan budget. "It was hurtful, but it was an answer to a prayer," Campbell recalled of the Vatican's disapproval. Now, however, the group knew what to do: seizing upon their unsought notoriety, they took to the road to speak out for people at the margins of our society. "We sought to lift up alternatives so that people would know not to fear and know that we could do better as a nation," Campbell said. The alternative she proposes is Faithful Budget, "responsible revenue for responsible programs."
Nuns on the Bus sought to make visible what was unseen but having an impact on all Americans: the largest income disparities of any developed country in the world. Moreover, while the incomes for all rose from 1947 until 1979, income inequality has grown dramatically from 1979 to 2009. To graphically illustrate this economic chasm, Campbell had members of the audience line up to represent society members with higher and lower incomes, then take steps forward or backward to demonstrate thirty years of widening inequality. The resulting graph? The top 20% saw an increase of 49%, the next quintile 23%, the middle class 11%, the next down the scale 4%. The bottom fifth had a decline of 7%. Two more audience members climbed the Lipkin Theatre's steps to show how the top 5% saw an income rise of 73% and the top 1% reached the stratosphere with an increase of 170%. These figures represent the profoundest gap our country has seen since 1929.
Campbell pointed out that another gap, in awareness, accompanies the income divide. "People in the top percentages," she said, "are so far removed from reality that they don't know and can't imagine what is happening at the bottom." She described Billy and his wife, whom she met at a soup kitchen in Milwaukee. Billy had had his working hours cut, forcing him and his wife to use food stamps for their children while relying themselves on the soup kitchen. Billy's yearning? To be able to buy his children new clothes for school after six years of making do with cast-offs.
Billy's struggles reflect those of workers whose minimum wage jobs of $7.25 an hour are no match for the cost of living. In today's economy, Campbell said, the minimum wage would have to be $12.50 just to keep people away from the very edge of poverty.
Campbell described how factors beyond Billy's control-such as unfair tax policies and debt from two unfinanced wars--have combined to push those on the lowest rung further down. What's more, an audience member said, some employers have taken advantage of the recession's high unemployment to offer half the salaries they used to pay a few years ago and for the same jobs.
In speaking to legislators, politicians and the public, Campbell counters Tea Partyers' beliefs that social welfare programs promote waste, fraud and abuse and that government is excessive and unnecessary. On the contrary, Campbell said, government programs such as food stamps conform to exacting public accountability. "We need government in order to be a democracy. If we do away with government, we do away with democracy. We are a government of the people."
We need to remember this unity when we talk about a more just society. We get isolated and don't talk to each other." Thus, Campbell has taken it as her mission to go into supermarkets and talk to people. Her message? "We need to care for all of us."
To conclude the program, Campbell told the Scriptural story of the five loaves and two fishes, in which Jesus tells his apostles to share what little they have with a throng of hungry people in the wilderness. The apostles first suggest going into town to find and bring back food. Jesus instructs them to instead distribute their sparse provisions, and a miracle occurs: all the people are fed. Campbell applied this to our modern imperatives. "Share what you have," Campbell said. "We are called to speak up and demand that we feed the hungry."
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