I enjoy watching “The Vicar of Dibley” on Maine Public Television. The BBC show stars Dawn French as Geraldine, a super-sized Anglican priest with a big heart and a huge sense of humor. One of the villagers is David Horton, the wealthy, haughty Parish Council chairman and district councilor.
In a 1994 episode, the two converse:
David Horton: What was that socialist tract you were spouting from the pulpit last week?
Geraldine: I’ve got a feeling it was the Sermon on the Mount.
David Horton: Jesus did not tell rich people to give all their money away.
Geraldine: I think you’ll find he did, actually!
What better day than Easter Sunday to remember Jesus of Nazareth’s words: “And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”
Not that the 1 percent of Americans who are just getting wealthier every year care. Who can blame them if they think they’ve reached a state of celestial happiness as they lounge on their luxury yachts?
A Congressional Budget Office study in 2011 “found that the top earning 1 percent of households increased their income by about 275 percent after federal taxes and income transfers over a period between 1979 and 2007, compared to a gain of just under 40 percent for the 60 percent in the middle of America’s income distribution.”
The lowest quarter of America workers earn no more than $23,000 annually. That top 1 percent cash in with at least $350,000. Each has at least $8 million in assets. The top 10 percent of Americans control a whopping 75 percent of the wealth of this nation.
Not all members of this elite group just sit around their mansions waiting for their personal trainers (at salaries of at least $800 a week) to arrive. Bill Gates is the richest American, and he and his wife are known for their philanthropy. Still, I sometimes find myself wondering where all that money goes.
Would I like some of it to come my way? Certainly. But I’m really thinking about the children and young adults I work with in the Augusta School Department. Like so many school districts, each year we have to cut more and more from our budgets. If the super-rich could part with a measly 1 percent of their $99 trillion and send it here, we’d score nearly a trillion. Heck, we could even share with Waterville!
In college, I took a class in urban history, and read “How the Other Half Lives,” by Jacob Riis. In 1889, Riis investigated tenement life in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. People worked in sweatshops and lived in abject poverty. This was in the era otherwise known as “The Gilded Age.” Riis’ muckraking led to reform, but the stark contrast between rich and poor in that time has always resonated with me.
Less than a decade before I took that class, Robert F. Kennedy had toured Appalachia, and he found that the faces of poverty hadn’t changed much since Dorothea Lange shot her famous photographs there in the 1930s. I well knew there still existed a wide gap between the wealthy and the destitute — the Kennedy compound in Hyannis was a mere 40 miles or so from where I grew up in Massachusetts.
But that didn’t seem to matter because, in America, everyone has a chance to do better than their parents. I could look at my old high school friends and see how many of us were the first in our families to go to college. We were the children and grandchildren of people who came from Quebec, Portugal, Italy, Lebanon, the Ukraine, and it wasn’t hard to outdo the limitations of the shtetl or vilaggio. My suburban town was filled with people who had moved out of old city triple-deckers into spanking-new ranch houses.
Now those of us in the great middle, economically speaking, seem to be sinking, even as we stay in one place. That’s because the ceiling keeps rising.
I feel positively downtrodden when an alert pops up on my browsing screen to view a slide show of “Fifteen Incredibly Luxurious Celebrity Mansions You Won’t Believe!” No, thank you. I get my fill of how the 1 percent live by reading The Wall Street Journal on Saturdays. I enjoy their culture coverage, but I realize I’m not in their readership demographic when I review their fashion tips. Let’s see, that Bottega Veneta clutch is adorable, and only $1,400. It will go well with the “perforated shearling coat” from Saks, a mere $11,900.
Imagine how many books I could buy for the school library with that money. Never mind, I’ll tell you: at least 800. Moreover, no sheep would be killed in the process.
I’d like to tax the 1 percent into the stratosphere, so I won’t have to think about their $825 Manolo Blahnik sandals anymore. But, seeing as this is Easter, I’ll place my hope and prayers in my spiritual leader, who takes his papal name and his inspiration from a rich merchant’s son from Assisi.
Francis literally threw away his fine clothes, embraced a leper and began a life of voluntary poverty. Maybe the pope can make potential sainthood as desirable as a $13,500 Oscar de la Renta gown.
Then again, it’s quite possible no one is willing to hug lepers anymore.
Liz Soares welcomes email at [email protected]