On the streets and in their congregations, Sacramento’s pastors, reverends, bishops and rabbis see the toll taken by income inequality and the dwindling economic security of the middle class.
The religious leaders’ approach to dealing with this gap between the rich and the rest of us varies. Some encourage job-training programs. Others ask their congregations to contribute to programs helping the needy. Many support programs – including the Sacramento Food Bank, Loaves & Fishes and the Winter Sanctuary – to feed and shelter those in need.
The magnitude of the income-inequality problem is underscored by a Pew Research Center analysis, which found that after more than four decades as the country’s economic majority, middle-income households number fewer than lower- and upper-income households combined.
The wealthy are faring superbly; 49 percent of U.S. aggregate income last year went to upper-income households, compared to 29 percent in 1970.
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At the same time, 20 percent of American adults are in the lowest income tier, an increase from 16 percent in 1971, according to the study released in December.
Last month, The Sacramento Bee’s Phillip Reese reported that in the four-county Sacramento region, the wealthiest 20 percent of households saw their income increase from 2007 through 2014 while extremely poor households were hit with huge declines.
The situation in America is getting worse because a small percent have control over the economy and the politics. The middle class is struggling, and there are more poor people than before.
Metwalli Amer, executive director of the Sacramento Area League of Associated Muslims
Sacramento religious leaders talked in interviews about income inequality. Typically, they were most comfortable talking about their efforts to assist those at the bottom in a society with an increasing gap between rich and poor:
Linda Dew-Hiersoux, co-pastor at The Table in East Sacramento, is “disgusted with the lack of ability to problem-solve on behalf of the poor and those in need of health care. It disgusts me that there is a move to repeal Obamacare. The point is the government needs to get work done for the people.”
Dew-Hiersoux has asked the 200 to 240 parishioners at her United Methodist church to keep track of all they spent on gifts this past holiday season and donate to the church the same amount for the needy or spend it on some program they passionately support.
Whatever funds the church receives will be divided between the Winter Sanctuary program and Tubman House, a program for homeless teen mothers and their children.
Metwalli Amer, executive director of the Sacramento Area League of Associated Muslims, says his 1,000-member congregation “knows about the gap between the few at the top and the masses. They know of the greed of the rich and the need of the poor.
“The situation in America is getting worse because a small percent have control over the economy and the politics. The middle class is struggling, and there are more poor people than before.”
Last year SALAM spent $70,000 on needy people, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The center participates in the Winter Sanctuary program.
Jaime Soto, bishop of the Diocese of Sacramento, which includes 1 million Catholics in 20 counties, said: “Some of the biggest economic gainers in California are our high-tech industries, and yet we also see some very distressed areas in the Central Valley and elsewhere.”
He believes immigration reform is key in the campaign against income inequality.
“Legalizing the status of millions of U.S. residents will help … contribute to ending the kind of serious inequality currently plaguing our system. It will help end the kind of exploitation that drives down wages and makes it harder for everyone to make a fair wage for a fair day’s work.
“At the federal level, there is a complete stalemate” on immigration reform, “and the leadership in California has been dismal.”
Kevin Brown, pastor of the 150-member Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church in south Sacramento, said many of his parishioners struggle in the lower-income tier.
“In most families, the grandmas and big mamas are actively involved, but in many African American families the fathers are in jail through mass incarceration. So you have single parents with three kids working two jobs just to make a livable wage.”
Brown, who works on job training and other programs designed to help people get an economic foothold, said, “If you aren’t in that top 1 percent, you don’t matter. We are slowly moving toward being a Third World country with haves and have-nots.”
Mona Alfi, rabbi of the 600-family Congregation B’nai Israel in Land Park, says she doesn’t need to tell her congregants about the importance of income inequality, because they are well aware of it.
“We have been doing social justice in the community since we were founded in 1848 at the start of the Gold Rush. It is a big part of our system – caring for those most vulnerable.”
The congregation participates in the Winter Sanctuary, housing as many as 110 in B’nai Israel’s social hall.
“I am very proud our congregation participates in this but I am sad that the city and county don’t provide more transition programs to help these people get back on their feet.”
Susan Sward is a freelance writer in San Francisco. firstname.lastname@example.org