Income Inequality–is this something Christians should be concerned about?

In the Iowa caucuses, Mr. Sanders lost to Mrs. Clinton on all the major issues except income inequality, as reported in the WSJ (gated):

The pollsters asked caucus-goers to choose one of four issues that mattered most to them in voting for a candidate. Mrs. Clinton easily won on health care, terrorism, and even the economy and jobs (51% to 42%).  But Mr. Sanders won big on the fourth issue: income inequality, which 27% of voters said was most important. The Vermont socialist won 61% of those voters while Mrs. Clinton settled for 34%. This no doubt reflects that Bernie has made inequality a major theme in his campaign, but then again socialists have been railing about the gap between rich and poor for decades.

But what is the basis of this concern?  Some raise economic arguments (e.g., income inequality leads to poorer growth due to the lower marginal propensity to consume of the rich–a Keynesian argument).  Yet most make this a top concern over fairness–there is an underlying morality to this.  It is simply immoral that one person can make billions while another is desperately poor.  Thus the socialists like Mr. Sanders condemn capitalism as immoral.

But is the appeal to a fairness morality Biblically sound?  I argue no:  the Bible offers no condemnation of income (or wealth) inequality per se.  The Bible has MUCH to say about concern for the poor, and you can make a case to condemn rich who do not help the needy.  But this is different from income or wealth inequality.  If the minimum income in today’s purchasing power were $200k in the U.S., such that everyone had a very nice lifestyle, while some people were making $2T per year, I argue that this differential in and of itself is not of Biblical concern.  Yes the rich need to be personally concerned about the dangers of wealth.  But the gap itself is not inherently wrong.  We see many Biblical examples of very wealthy people that the Bible commends living at times where there were poor people (e.g., Job).  While these rich were considered just for aiding the poor, there was never a thought that there should be equality of outcome (Job 1:8, 29:17, 42:12)

This post is a follow-on to my progressive taxation post, and precedes a post on proportional (flat) taxation that I’ll do in a few days.

So what do you think?  How do you read the scriptures?

My concluding assertion:  God cares a lot more about our unity than He does our equality.

35 thoughts on “Income Inequality–is this something Christians should be concerned about?”

  1. Many people (myself included) often get angry about income inequality because it doesn’t seem fair for someone to be making 200x your income level for the same amount of work (or less) often due to things like having opportunity growing up because of their family or luck.

    With that said, I don’t want that income for myself, I never have, I’m happy with my situation in life. You are right that income inequality isn’t the problem, it’s a distraction. Poverty is the problem, at home and abroad. We do have the resources to fix poverty. We also have the resources to fix the causes of poverty, such as a lack of education.

    1. I only get angry about those getting billions when they are getting it via cronyism or even indirect gov’t favors (e.g., hedge fund managers who can play off the guarantees of the Fed to bail them out). I have ZERO problems with a Mark Zuckerberg or a Sam Walton or even a Bill Gates. However, folks like Warren Buffett I do have problems with–see his cronyism exposed in ch 6 of Peter Schweitzer’s book Throw Them All Out.

      Cronys are getting rich at our expense, unlike free markets where people get rich by serving us.

      1. I actually wasn’t being judgemental of you, I was admitting my own failure. I do find it interesting how at least Gates and Zuckerberg seem very humble and generous with their fortunes. I admire the humility they show.

        I have no respect for companies or people that do everything they can legally (like crony capitalism or things that skirt the law) to hoard fortunes for themselves, and there are many examples.

      2. I didn’t take your comment as being judgmental at me; I was attempting to add to your comment but also be more specific where I see inequality being Biblically wrong. Your comments are all good. Thanks.

  2. It is frustrating that society is calling for fairness in income. To me it brings up the issue of incentive. If we moved toward greater income equality it would remove the incentive to work in high stress jobs and to endure years of schooling, like in the case of being a doctor, when another citizen is getting the same income at a job such as a trash worker.

    1. Let’s be careful with terminology, fairness in income means that two trash collectors who do an equally good job get the same pay regardless of race or gender, that’s something I’m sure you would agree with.

      Complete equality of income is something no one is calling for. Rather it’d be something like a CEO would make ten times the salary of a normal person (which might still be more extreme than most people would want).

      1. Can you identify any biblical support that we ought to use government to ensure that people can’t voluntarily agree to work at wages that other people won’t agree with? In other words, why can’t a corporation, if it feels its in its best interest, pay a CEO 100 times the average worker? If the company and the CEO are both happy with that, is it not envy that drives someone else external to that agreement? While the parable of the laborer in the fields is not really talking about money (Matthew 20), the reason it would be clear to the listener is the question in v15 “Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?” is a rhetorical question. Of course we have the right to pay someone more if we want to. A third party has no right to complain.

      2. Wow Jeff, you are coming across as very aggressive. I was making a clarification of language.

        Yes I can come up with biblical support, we’re supposed to obey government, even when that government is doing something that isn’t fair. Jesus supported the status quo with tax collectors, who routinely stole from the most vulnerable.

        Is it something we should strive for as part of the government? Probably not, poverty should be our focus, or specific services to give an equal opportunity.

        I want you to think about your tone in these messages, you come across as very aggressive and pompous.

        In response to this post twice you’ve lashed out at something I didn’t say.

        Now let me ask you a question in response to your statement. Would you support government interfering to make sure that minorities get paid the same in the same position with the same quality of work? I do and it’s not envy that motivates that.

      3. “I want you to think about your tone in these messages, you come across as very aggressive and pompous.” Sorry, my apologies. I have been accused of being “intense” and there is truth to that; it comes sometimes in my responses. I’ll work on it. If that offends you, that was not my intent. But I really do want to challenge ideas. It may get a little tough at times, but I want it to be iron sharpening iron. Please stick around and continue to engage.

        “Wow Jeff, you are coming across as very aggressive. I was making a clarification of language.” I know, from your first part of the post. I was responding to the 2nd. And yes I’m trying to get into the debate; you put down what many on the other side are saying–and that is exactly the point I’m trying to challenge as not being with Biblical merit. If you were just trying to state an alternative position and have no desire to defend (if its not yours) that’s fine.

        “Yes I can come up with biblical support, we’re supposed to obey government, even when that government is doing something that isn’t fair. Jesus supported the status quo with tax collectors, who routinely stole from the most vulnerable.” How does this show biblical support for concern over inequality? I’m not seeing it. Also, I would quibble with your comment that Jesus supported the status quo w/tax collectors. At most you could say that he didn’t challenge the status quo in that area. He indirectly challenged it through loving Zaccheus and changing his heart, and John the Baptist told the soldiers to be content with their wages.

        “In response to this post twice you’ve lashed out at something I didn’t say.” I took what you said as an opportunity to raise the issues that are out there on income inequality. It wasn’t to attack you, but a certain way of thinking. And no offense, but I’m probably a lot less diplomatic on someone that comes into the blog as “anonymous,” since I’m not engaging the real you but only any ideas you raise.

        “Now let me ask you a question in response to your statement. Would you support government interfering to make sure that minorities get paid the same in the same position with the same quality of work? I do and it’s not envy that motivates that.”
        Let’s just say that the government record of actually making that happen is pretty poor. Let’s remember that Jim Crow was a government imposed system precisely to prevent free markets from working. Let’s remember that Davis-Bacon was a government law to prohibit black businesses from competing against white unions. I’m more suspicious of government having the power that they will misuse rather than them preventing harms. Especially since the way you’ve framed it–“same position with the same quality of work.”
        I see this all the time on equal pay for women. I’m sure you’re used to the way the political process labels it–Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton both claim that women are only paid 77 cents on the dollar that a male makes. This is a complete fabrication of reality when you consider hours worked, occupation, time in the workforce, etc. Yes there is some difference (~5% if any at all) but nowhere near the numbers that politicians use to whip up a popular frenzy to gain power.
        https://www.aei.org/publication/the-77-cents-on-the-dollar-myth-about-womens-pay/
        So no I don’t want the political class who will respond to all sorts of pressures to decide what the same quality of work is. I think that is well beyond their ability and will just lead to more lawsuits and less opportunities for minorities. As I’ve said in a previous post, the best solution for minority pay is strong economic growth. Just as minorities are disproportionately hurt in the bust, they are disproportionately helped in the boom. Let’s get this economy booming again!

        Again, thanks for jumping into the fray!

  3. I would say that the Bible does not condemn being rich, but that it warns against misusing one’s wealth. I like the ending thought about God caring more about our unity than our equality.

  4. I don’t think there should be equality when it comes to income. The thought of income equality makes me think no matter how long you’ve been working or how much you work, you get paid the same. We obviously all know from economics that incentives matter, but the Bible says in 2 Thesselonians 3:10, “whoever doesn’t work, doesn’t eat” (Paraphrased). I don’t think people should be paid the same for not working or not working as hard as others.

  5. This is a bit of a misleading post; not even Ron Sider would deny that income inequality is an inevitable effect of even marginally free markets:

    “I think that a good, short statement of a biblical definition of economic justice is that God wants every person and every family to have access to the productive resources, so that if they act responsibly they can earn their own way and be productive members of society,” Ron Sider, distinguished professor of Theology, Holistic Ministry & Public Policy at Palmer Theological Seminary, told The Christian Post on Wednesday. “I am not arguing for equality of income and wealth.” (Christian Post)

    The issue comes back to justice: to what extent does that equality exist? What is the quality of life for those who are poor within their context? How were/are the wealthy able obtain and maintain their wealth? That last question speaks directly your legitimate concerns about cronyism, lobbying, and the lack of influence among the poor to make the kind of changes and create the kind of advantages wealthy, resourced inviduals take for granted.

    I appreciate what Anne Bradley has to say on the subject:
    “A cronyist society means firms can go to the government for protection, for special favors that other people don’t get — that’s why we see so much lobbying in the Federal Government (like when when rich, established companies convince the government to add new regulations, it prevents smaller firms from competing for business). We’re creating an environment where the rich aren’t getting rich because they serve people but because they’re rigging the game. It’s unjust because we are rigging the system so we can benefit at the expense of someone else — that is unbiblical.” (Christian Post)

    That’s only on the business side. There are many other factors — the tax code, public education (fees, curriculum, integration), transportation, insurance, criminal law and mass incarceration — where, for some time now, invested interests have produced preferable outcomes at the expense of marginalized communities. I think it’s fair to say there is a Biblical argument that Christians should thus be opposed to a system that produces those kinds of outcomes and harm *most* those that the Bible calls us to uplift and amplify.

    Proverbs 13:23 — “An unplowed field produces food for the poor, but injustice sweeps it away.”

    1. I’m sorry, but I didn’t understand your point. Can you clarify whether you think there is a biblical case against income (or wealth) inequality per se, i.e., if there is no cronyism involved?

      1. The Bible does not speak on income inequality, period.

        It does clearly warn against those who lay up treasure on earth instead of heaven.

    2. Sorry, Professor. I didn’t mean to be confusing.

      Income inequality – with all other factors controlled – is inevitable. Opposing that form of inequality is like opposing gravity’s affect on people who weigh more .

      But that isn’t income inequality in its current form in the US. The inequality isn’t the result of “natural” circumstances, and not just cronyism. Numerous difference forces — from bad policy to selfish market actions — have created a rigged systems that amplifies the voice of the wealthy and numbs the efforts of the poor, perpetuating the unnatural inequality and harming the most marginalized.

      THAT kind of inequality isn’t desirable from a Biblical point of view.

      Again, to what I said before:

      “The issue [Biblically] comes back to justice: to what extent does that equality exist? What is the quality of life for those who are poor within their context? How were/are the wealthy able obtain and maintain their wealth? That last question speaks directly your legitimate concerns about cronyism, lobbying, and the lack of influence among the poor to make the kind of changes and create the kind of advantages wealthy, resourced inviduals take for granted.”

      1. “But that isn’t income inequality in its current form in the US. The inequality isn’t the result of “natural” circumstances, and not just cronyism. Numerous difference forces — from bad policy to selfish market actions — have created a rigged systems that amplifies the voice of the wealthy and numbs the efforts of the poor, perpetuating the unnatural inequality and harming the most marginalized.”
        Jonathan–I don’t doubt some of what you wrote, but I’d argue that almost all of that is the cronyism, which we all agree is bad. Can you give me examples of how “selfish market actions” end up “numbing the efforts of the poor”?

        Obviously what I’m driving toward is if the “problems” of inequality are not inherent in the inequality but rather due to some other factor, then the progressive tax solution is attacking a symptom, and not the disease, and attacking some people who show symptoms, but have no disease. I’m interested in tackling root causes of problems where possible.

      2. Sure. Historically, here are a few:
        Miserable Working Conditions: From 1900 to 1979, work-related deaths decreased almost 100%. Historically, children were routinely worked 60-80 hours in deplorable conditions and were frequently found to have received stunted growth, communicable diseases, and shorter life spans (2M working full-time in 1900). Employees were exposed to the weather elements, dangerous machines, and given no guarantee of benefits (workman’s comp or otherwise) for potential losses. 15-18 hour days weren’t uncommon. In 1900, 500K workers were maimed in factory accidents.

        Poisonous, Dangerous Products: from Mattel magnet toys to Chinese-made, led-infested baby toys to Firsestone tires, sticky Cadillac, gas pedals and dangerous Dell batteries. Even today, 10 minutes on the Consumer Protection Safety Commission’s website demonstrates a fair amount of too-risky products that took dozens, hundreds, or thousands of injuries before a forced recall was necessary.

        Housing Discrimination and Red Lining Practices: Hudson City Bank, in New Jersey, has settled more than $40M over lawsuits regarding their lending practice, which lent a whopping 25 mortgages to minorities (out of nearly 2000 mortgages!) over a two-year term. Unfortunately, their practice – while less common today – still occurs around the country. That practice has, historically, deprived entire demographics of the most common way in the US to build wealth and created a massive, transient renting class.

        The Entire 2008 Financial Crisis: selling subprime mortgages to underqualified consumers, organizing those mortgages and others forms of debt into CDOs, improperly rating those CDOs, insuring those CDOs to multiple investors without setting aside funds for payout, and then effectively gambling on the value of all of that bed debt with pension payments.

        More contemporary:
        Redevelopment Leading to Displacement: the negative externalities of gentrification aren’t always externalities; many developers are willing to say explicitly that they desire to property to realize value through demographic shifts in the locations where they are investing. Raising rental prices, cost of living, leveraging poorly-designed tax auctions…all of these are way to gentrify an area in an non-inclusive way that takes advantage of the aforementioned renter class.

        Speculating Developers: many contemporary developers purchase real property never intending to develop said property until the nearby area receives development. The consequence of their generally legal actions is nearby depreciation, blight, and decreasing home values (which accelerate transiency, depopulation, harmed municipal tax base, etc). This kind of speculation – especially the kind where owners don’t maintain their properties – is extremely common in poor neighborhoods.

        Location of High-Pollution Refineries/Factories/Waste Sites: the correlation between the location of these dangerous sites and wage/education/home ownernship data is incredibly strong. You will almost never find a waste site or heavy-pollutant factory in a wealthy neighborhood. You’ll find them in places like Southwest Detroit, one of the highest-polluted areas in the United States, and you’ll find those same companies lobbying to increase pollutant limits even while residents nearby exhibit all kinds of increased symptoms and decreased quality of life indicators (which, as you can imagine, has an effect on the real property market, too).

        PayDay Loan Operations: These companies routinely charge 400%-500% interest to mostly poor or lower-class customers, many of whom are financially illiterate and don’t understand that to which they are agreeing. It has taken layers of government intervention to require the posting of signs regarding their interest rates, and other interventions. I was proud to have voted with the majority of Ohioans (while at CU) to limit these institution’s rates to credit card rates.

        Insurance Litigation Strategies: insurance companies routinely delay and exacerbate pay-out claims from their consumers. This is true for many kinds of insurance consumers, but it has been demonstrated that these companies are especially likely to employ delays against lower-class to middle-class consumers who are (1) more likely to settle out of court for less than what they owe, or (2) lack the resources to litigate their interest in receiving a full-pay out.

        One last point: if your suggesting that progressive tax is intended to re-mediate *all* source problems underlying unjust economic equality, I think you’re fighting a straw man. That’s on part to arguing against police departments or federal law enforcement because those institutions fail to address source problems underlying crime. In both cases, the institutions are created to deal with symptoms in a (hopefully) balanced way while pursuing other means – means which aren’t always governmental – to get to those source issues.

  6. I agree there is little reason for concern if people earning minimum incomes are living a nice lifestyle. However, the poor and needy will always be present (John 12:8) so we will always have the familial, biblical role of watching out and caring for their needs. Those who do not adhere to the normative Scripture lack a solid foundation to base their definition and application of “fair” off of. I doubt there will ever be a firm unity in this subject as the incentives of free-riding will always combat against the values prescribed to be sought after by Christ.

  7. I think most of the comments so far have stated or concluded that the underlying issue is not income inequality (since the gap between an individual making 100k and one making 1 million wouldn’t be a problem) but concern for the poor. Many wealthy individuals are very generous with the money they have made, and I don’t think most people would accuse them of wrongdoing. I guess my question would be, how to do we ensure that the people who have the wealth have an appropriate concern for the poor? (I know there is not a catch all solution, I’m just interested in some of the options).

    1. The data cited in one of Professor Clauson’s posts shows that the poor are more dedicated to charity than are the wealthy in that those who earn at or near the poverty level give away upwards of 12% of their income.

      If the wealthy were as generous, there would probably be no need for government to engage in anti-poverty programs.

      To whom much is given, much is required. Those who have obtained great wealth almost always are born with talent,and/or are born in the right family and usually born in the right country–i.e. are born lucky. Being born in an impoverished area in this nation usually means sub-par schools and therefore less opportunity in higher education; the data clearly reflect this correlation.

  8. The gospel message does not address income inequality. The search for great wealth can–and according to Jesus almost always does–get in the way of eternal life.

    Although I think Thomas Piketty raises some good points in his book, I am not concerned about income inequality as much as I am about inequality of opportunity, a pervasive problem in this nation.

    Also of greater concern is increasing plutocracy, the ability of the wealthy to buy political influence as if a politician were a stock, and the investor is Peter Lynch looking for a ten-bagger. In some states politicians receive most of their financial support from one or two individuals. Imagine some politician waiting to get his voting orders from his main contributor, and then going into the legislative building and voting. It happens, in our so-called democratically-elected republic.

    Back to the original question. Would the world be better if we all experienced income EQUALITY? I don’t think so. But imagine all of the intellectual capital that would be released in the world economy, in science, in medicine, and in learning if every mind had the opportunities many of us do. We are not even close to realizing our potential as a species.

    1. Jeff, I agree with almost everything you said. Except the last line. Maybe just replace “a species” with “God’s children.” Then I’ll feel better.
      :-)

  9. I also agree that the inequality of pay is alright because of the incentives that cause people to work harder, and therefore, get paid more. The verses in Job are good for describing how we need to be unified instead of having equality in pay with one another. 1 Peter 3:8 is another one of my favorites for a subject like this.

  10. I feel that in the past inequality was understandable because men were the head of households and the main source of income. Currently, I believe the times have changed. Most households have both parents working or are single parent households. It is necessary that women and men make the same now so that everyone has a chance at making ends meet. As far as the Bible goes, I believe that in the household God intended us to have; we should still have the man as the head and man provider. The woman could get a job, but her first job would be to raise up the children in the church.

  11. There is nothing in the bible about everyone having to have equal income. We see many cases of poor Christians and wealthy Christians alike, and Jesus loved them all. It doesn’t matter how much money one has, it is what that person does with their money. People will never have equal income because a doctor will go to school for 10+ years as opposed to someone who works at a fast food restaurant which requires no specific education. There is no realistic way to make the holders of each of these jobs have equal income because no one will choose to become a doctor for a minimum wage job. Everyone is so concerned with everyone being the same, but we don’t all need to be the same. As Professor Haymond said, it isn’t about equality it’s about unity.

  12. There is no problem with income inequality in moderate amounts. In fact, its the natural result of a capitalist system. Also, I don’t think that the Bible ever condemns income inequality, it only comments on caring for the poor, which is more of a personal conviction and probably not a promotion of socialist ideologies. Nonetheless, I think there are definitely economic problems with too much income inequality, and we should be cautious of these problems, especially in America today. To see how income inequality could hurt us, we only need to look back to the 2008 recession. If we had less income inequality, then the housing crisis wouldn’t have been as problematic, because a stronger middle class wouldn’t have been as dependent on home prices for their wealth. The real estate bubble was so damaging because middle class incomes had not been proportionately rising with productivity. America hadn’t noticed or cared because with rising house prices, Americans felt profitable. When that problem was unmasked, people saw the reality of the situation, and the fact they were living week to week. If there was less income inequality this problem would not have been as severe. For this reason, I think a large separation of the classes can be very dangerous, and we should be cautious of it. In my opinion, income inequality can be a major issue.

  13. When it comes to income there will never be equality. Some of us are blessed with the skills to be doctors and others don’t have the college education to get an affluent job. What you do with your wealth though is key. Doctors can be more influential in there giving due to how well off most of them are. Why would you try to have income equality between lets say a high school drop out and a doctor?

  14. I believe that people should have incentives and aspirations to be successful. That doesn’t always mean being wealthy but there is nothing wrong with being wealthy and the Bible doesn’t say we should all be equal in terms of income. The Bible also speaks of how it is harder for a rich man to make it into heaven. I believe it was Professor Marc Clausen who blogged about how the rich are the most generous people and that America is the most generous country. Many rich people have worked very hard to get where they are and deserve the place they are in. Macroeconomics stresses that incentives are important.

  15. I have to agree with you. We cannot assign morality to a gap between income. The love of money is evil (as said in the Bible) but having money is not a bad thing in itself. People like Mr. Sanders are misguided in this idea and should not sway a christian who understands what they believe.

  16. Haha, I couldn’t agree more.
    It was funny and I’m glad you said something about it, because as I was reading this, I felt like I was reading the answer (some of my answer) to your question about the progressive tax system.
    If there is no Biblical harm in having a large or small income, then why should the government be allowed to tax them any differently?
    The only answer that would ever make even partial sense is because the rich are simply not doing their part in helping the poor. But is that really for the government to decide?? and if it is, is it the government’s job of fixing this “wrong”. I don’t have the answer, just something to think about.

  17. Last year in chapel Wayne Grudem proved/showed from a Biblical perspective that God believes in private property (ex – do not steal) and that He wants us to do our absolute best in whatever we do because that is what brings Him the most glory – using our God-given skills as well as we are able. It doesn’t take a large leap to show that if a businessman is capable of earning a lot (or an absurd amount) of money.

    Jesus said that the poor would always be with us, I don’t think He was saying that this was good or bad, just stating the fact of it.

    Neither Poverty nor Riches are in an of themselves immoral, but those who are on the high side of income inequality will be held responsible for how they use all that God has given them, and as James says “But the brother of humble circumstances is to glory in his high position; and the rich man is to glory in his humiliation, because like flowering grass he will pass away.”

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