Harry R. Jackson, Jr.

Chetty and his team also discovered other traits which made certain regions of the country more favorable to upward mobility than others. These characteristics included good schools, the presence of mixed income neighborhoods and a higher percentage of intact, two-parent families. It would seem that encouraging the development of these features would be a good way to encourage economic opportunity.

However, the kinds of policies being proposed by President Obama and Mayor de Blasio will likely involve greater taxes on the wealthy to be redistributed to the poor in various forms. Yet according to the New York Times’ discussion of the economic mobility study, “The researchers concluded that larger tax credits for the poor and higher taxes on the affluent seemed to improve income mobility only slightly.”

Inequality bothers most Americans. If we are living comfortable lives, we find it upsetting that people down the street or a few neighborhoods away are living in squalid conditions or struggling to make ends meet. This indicates healthy compassion for our neighbors. But some of us are plagued by a gnawing sense that wealthy individuals do not deserve their money. This is why a chaplain could consider the “chasm” between wealthy individuals and the poor tantamount to slavery, even if the actual living conditions of the poor are much better than those of slaves. This indicates envy, or as the Bible frequently calls it, covetousness.

Oddly, we appear to be more concerned with rectifying inequality than raising actual the standard of living for the poorest among us. Several studies echo the findings of the Yale University paper Does Envy Destroy Social Fundamentals? The Impact of Relative Income Position on Social Capital (Justina A.V. Fischer and Benno Torgler), which explains that because of envy, many people would prefer to make a lower salary if they are surrounded by people who have less, than to make higher salary and be surrounded by people who have more.

As Americans, we should work to improve the standard of living of our poorest citizens, but too often we settle for merely punishing the economically productive. This may placate our resentment of the successful, but it does little to actually help the poor. There is a reason that God made covetousness a serious enough sin to be listed in the Ten Commandments. We need to develop policies that encourage upward mobility, not policies which merely drag the wealthy down. “Thou shalt not envy” … now there’s a sound-bite!

Harry R. Jackson, Jr.

Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.