Monday, August 01, 2005

"Sunday" Comment: Reading the Economy through the Social Gospel

Last week the Commerce Department released the economic growth numbers for the second quarter. The U.S. economy grew at a "strong" 3.4% annual rate last quarter. A Saturday New York Times article cited this statistic and others regarding increasing corporate spending on equipment and inventory for the broad conclusion that the U.S. economy is in the midst of "good times."

But, as I've indicated before, those who care about the Social Gospel must read economic indicators with a more critical eye. The Christian measure of an economy's performance is how "the least" are faring. Economic growth, in other words, is not good in and of itself. Growth is good only insofar as it improves the conditions of the poor. So we have to interrogate the Commerce Department's figures on last quarter's economic growth: what does it mean for the least of these?

The Annie E. Casey Foundation reported on Tuesday that child poverty is on the rise. These findings mirror the federal government's conclusions of two weeks ago. 18% of children in the United States, 13 million, currently live in poverty. This is up from 16% in 2001. This means that almost 1 in 5 children are living on less than a family-of-four equivalent of "$18,810 in annual income."

"For years, poverty rates were dropping sharply. No we're moving steadily in the other direction," said W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. (emphasis added).

It does not appear that all boats are rising in the Bush Economy. Indeed, as the Commerce Department was reporting "healthy" economic growth, it was also reporting that, in spite of this fact, "workers' pay and benefits rose more slowly than inflation in the second quarter...." In non-jargon terms, this means that, even though the economy grew, workers are poorer now than they were three months ago.

So as Christians we have to ask: where is all of this growth going? Since it's not going to workers, since it's not improving child poverty, it's basically irrelevant. No matter how much Gross Domestic Product booms, if the least aren't faring well, economic conditions are terrible.

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