By Dawinder “Dave” S. Sidhu, Assistant Professor of Law, University of New Mexico
At the heart of President Obama’s domestic agenda lies the middle-class. President Obama, for example, identified “our top priority as a nation” to be “reigniting” “a rising, thriving middle class.” Memorializing this emphasis on the middle-class, official Obama reelection campaign signs read: “MiddleClass First.”
One-hundred days into his second term, some are challenging President Obama’s commitment to the middle-class. For example, the headline of a recent Washington Post article read: “Despite promises, middle-class Americans still aren’t top priority.”
Rather than assessing whether and to what degree the middle-class is “top priority” in Washington, we should be taking a step back to ask whether the middle-class should be “top priority” in the first place. For moral, religious, and social reasons, the answer should be an emphatic “no.”
The middle-class, by definition, is situated economically between the rich and the poor. The poor are not an abstract stratum below the middle-class, but represent a significant and growing segment of our brothers and sisters in the American community. The U.S. Census Bureau recently reported that there are roughly 50 million – or about 1 in 6 – Americans who are poor in the United States. Further, approximately 16 million – or about 1 in 5 – children in the United States live with families that qualify as poor.
Poverty is not a mere description as to an economic situation, but is an experience in real terms. The poor in the United States suffer poverty, which is to say they struggle to take care of their basic needs, are denied proper education and essential services, and are often effectively confined to the margins of our social space, such as inner cities. They lack the economic opportunity or the requisite training to change their economic position or geographic location. Such poverty also is likely to be generational in nature, resulting in a perpetual underclass.
The plight of this underclass is not morally sustainable. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., observed that the poor have been “shut out of our minds and driven from the mainstream of our societies, because we have allowed them to become invisible.” Dr. King understood that relegating the poor to the farthest reaches of our collective conscience and assigning them to the corners of our society does not alter the human bonds between us or otherwise lessen the solemn duty we possess to be our “brothers’ keeper.” Mental and spatial separation may explain our neglect of the poor, but the moral obligation to help remains nonetheless.
Religious principles are an independent source of, and also reinforce, that obligation. The religions of the world generally share a sense that man must help those less fortunate when possible, and that to attend to the poor is the functional equivalent of serving our creator. In Sikhism, my religious tradition, one of the three foundational requirements of all adherents is to serve others, particularly the poor. This mandate is grounded in notions of the equality of man and that virtue is more likely to reside with the poor than with those on the opposite end of the economic spectrum. Under this view, to serve the poor is to elevate the welfare of your fellow man and to uplift your spirit and dignity in the process.
From a social standpoint, the poor are effectively extraneous to and expendable in our society. The late civil rights scholar John O. Calmore referred to the fact that a “significant segment of today’s poor . . . are superfluous not only to the economy, but also to the nation’s societal organization.” A fractured society is a deficient one. The government should act, in all possible haste, to bring the poor back within mainstream society.
Doing so would make economic sense as well, as the poor would be able to find meaningful employment, contribute more in taxes, and impose less of costs on our social service and criminal justice systems. Accordingly, even on economic terms, the poor have something significant to offer.
Despite the merits of these arguments, politics appears to stand in the way. The middle class is the most sizable voting bloc in the United States, and is thus able to command considerable attention from our leaders. Yet political considerations should not skew the order of need dictated by moral, religious, or social principles such that the middle-class may leapfrog above the poor. This is not to diminish the economic problems faced by the middle-class, but only to insist upon the greater needs of the poor relative to the middle-class.
In the HBO-series The Wire, the newly-minted mayor asserts, “I believe that in the end we will be judged not by our efforts on behalf of those who vote for us, or those who contribute to our campaigns, or those who provide for our tax base. I believe that we will be judged by what we provide to the weakest and most vulnerable. That is the test.”
That test is supported by moral, faith-based, and social considerations. But we will not able to meet it, unless we start asking the right questions of and demanding the right actions from our political leaders.