I am very pleased to be here today with Vermont religious leaders to discuss one of the most profound moral issues of the 21st Century: the skyrocketing increase in wealth and income inequality. I am honored to be joined by: Bishop Thomas Ely of the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont; The Reverend Lynn Bujnak, conference minister of the United Church of Christ in Vermont; Monsignor Roland Rivard, who for many years served as pastor of Christ the King – St. Anthony Parish in Burlington; and Rabbi Joshua Chasan, the senior rabbi at the Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington.
We are also joined by other members of the clergy and religious organizations, including the Sisters of Mercy, the Vermont Ecumenical Council, and others.
What we are here to discuss today is this: Whether you are a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, or a member of any other religious faith, the growing gap between the very rich and everyone else is a profoundly moral issue.
It is an issue that needs to be vigorously discussed by the American people, and that urgently needs to be addressed by Congress.
The United States is the richest country on the face of the earth. Yet, there are more Americans living in poverty today than at any time in our history, the middle class is disappearing and we have the most unequal distribution of wealth and income of any major country in the world.
Today, the top one percent owns 38 percent of the nation’s financial wealth. Meanwhile, the bottom sixty percent owns just 2.3 percent.
Today, the richest 400 Americans own over $2 trillion in wealth, more than the bottom 150 million Americans combined.
Over the past decade, the net worth of the top 400 billionaires in this country has doubled – increasing by an astronomical $1 trillion.
Last year, the top 25 hedge fund managers made more than $24 billion, enough to pay the salaries of more than 425,000 public school teachers. What does that say about what we value as a nation?
Since the Great Recession, 95 percent of all new income created in this country has gone to the top 1 percent.
The Walton family (the owners of Walmart) owns more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of Americans.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has the highest rate of childhood poverty than any major country on earth.
Half of Americans have less than $10,000 in their savings accounts and have no idea how they will ever be able to retire with dignity.
Since 1999, the typical middle-class family has seen its income go down by more than $5,000 after adjusting for inflation.
Whether you are Catholic or Protestant; Christian, Jewish or Muslim; Hindu or Buddhist, what all of the major religions teach us is that it is immoral when so many have so little and so few have so much.
A land where millionaires and billionaires have never had it so good, while tens of millions struggle just to survive is not what Christianity is about. It’s not what Judaism is about. And it’s not what America is supposed to be about.
Today, the United States is No. 1 in billionaires, No. 1 in corporate profits, No. 1 in CEO salaries, No. 1 in childhood poverty and No. 1 in income and wealth inequality in the industrialized world.
From a moral perspective, from an economic perspective, and from a political perspective, we have got to do better. Where can we begin?
For starters, we have got to increase the national minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour. We must recognize that it is immoral for a full-time worker to be living in poverty.
We need to extend emergency unemployment benefits to the more than 3 million Americans who have been unemployed for more than six months.
We have got to create millions of jobs rebuilding our crumbling roads, bridges, dams, sewers, culverts, schools, and affordable housing.
We have got to transform our energy system away from dirty fossil fuels and towards sustainable energy – not just to save the planet that people of all faiths share – but to create millions of jobs in the process.
And we have got to make sure that the wealthiest Americans and most profitable corporations pay their fair share. Every year, millionaires, billionaires and profitable corporations avoid $100 billion in taxes by stashing their cash in the Cayman Islands and other offshore tax havens. We cannot allow that to continue.
The true greatness of a country does not lie in the number of millionaires and billionaires it has. Rather, a great nation is one in which justice, equality and dignity prevail.
We are also joined by Monsignor Roland Rivard, who served 53 years as a Catholic priest in Vermont, and who was given the distinction of Monsignor from Pope Benedict. It is an honor to have you join us, Monsignor.
We were talking before the press conference that perhaps no one has spoken more eloquently about the need to address extreme wealth and income inequality than Pope Francis.
With permission from Monsignor Rivard, let me read a few quotes from the Pope’s writings on income inequality:
“While the income of the minority is increasing exponentially, that of the majority is crumbling.”
“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”
“The current financial crisis… originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.”
“There is a need for financial reform along ethical lines that would produce in its turn an economic reform to benefit everyone. Money has to serve, not to rule.”
Particularly poignant to me are the Pope’s criticisms of the economy for disregarding the needs of our youth, and the elderly:
“In throwing away the kids and elderly, the future of a people is thrown away because the young people are going to push forcefully forward, and because the elderly give us wisdom.”