Call it the Lazarus index.
The richest and poorest Americans are now separated by the widest gap in history.
In the latest in a series of gloomy reports, the Census Bureau reported that the top 20 percent of income earners (more than $100,000 annually) accounted for 49.4 percent of all income generated in the United States last year compared with the 3.4 percent earned by those below the poverty line.
The ratio of 14.5 to 1 was nearly double of the low of 7.7 in 1968.
And an international index found income inequality of the United States at its highest level since record keeping began in 1967. The disparity in the United States is the greatest among industrialized nations in the West.
There is no little irony that the news came in a week that began with the Gospel parable of the rich man and Lazarus.
The income inequality report followed an earlier report on the poverty rate. The overall poverty rate in the United States increased in 2009 to 14.3 percent or 43.6 million people, the U.S Census Bureau said in its annual report on the economic well-being of U.S. households. Comparable figures for 2008 were 13.2 percent or 39.8 million people. The poverty level for 2009 established by the federal government is $21,954 for a family of four.
The question, then, is a simple one: Is this just? Not is this fair or is this right, but is this just?
How can we hear the cry of the poor across such a vast gulf?
Poverty today is a moral threat to the common good, according to the president of Catholic Charities USA.
"There is a moral dimension here that our society has got to come to terms with because, quite frankly, many of the people whose decisions led to the recession have not accounted for ethics in their decisions," Father Larry Snyder said when reporting his agency’s statistics for 2009. It reported 9.1 million people seeking service, a 7.5-percent increase from 2008.
It is tragic when there is not a rational national discourse without invoking communism, socialism or calling one Hitler. The topic deserves far more than competing rallies on the Mall in Washington.
During his keynote address at Catholic Charities USA’s centennial convention, Father Snyder noted that the agency was established at a time of social transformation as the United States moved from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy.
That transition came at a cost, he said, including "a loss of recognition of the importance of human beings and a national sense of community."
Father Snyder criticized current attitudes of "intolerance, division and lack of compassion for the ‘undeserving poor’" as a "refusal to see in the faces of the poor the image and likeness of God."
A nation is judged by its justice, by how it treats its poor. This goes back to Old Testament prophets warning Israel to care for the "anawim," a Hebrew word that describes the "poor ones" who remained faithful to God in times of difficulty. To do this today means to have a preferential option for the poor.
We Catholic Christians have a mission to build up the body of Christ by speaking up for the poor. Now "is not the time for us to be timid about our faith," as Father Snyder said.
It is not only our right as citizens but our obligation as Christians to work to correct an unjust economic system so grossly out of balance.
Kent is the retired editor of archdiocesan newspapers in Omaha and Seattle.