October 24, 2007

Religion and Poverty in Mississippi

In feudal Europe, Christianity helped to maintain the rigid class structure. The landowners benefited greatly from serfs who were convinced that complying with the unfair system in this life would lead to heavenly rewards. The church, in turn, received money from the landowners. It seems everyone benefited except those pesky serfs. Something similar is happening today in Mississippi, and I cannot help but wonder what role religion is playing in maintaining our despicable status quo.

Let's start with one simple, undisputed fact: Mississippi is the poorest state in America. This is nothing new, as I'm fairly certain we've been in the bottom 5% since the Civil War. Reasonable people can disagree about the historic causes for this fact and about how best to change it, but there is no disagreement over our last place showing on a list of median incomes.

Believe it or not, Mississippi also has the highest sales tax on food in America. In fact, Mississippi is one of only seven states that taxes all individual food purchases. The poorest state maintains the highest tax on food. Doesn't make much sense, does it? Meanwhile, we have one of the lowest cigarette taxes in the nation. It appears that the tobacco lobby wields considerably more power with our Republican-controlled state government than do our impoverished citizens. Go figure.

Jamie Franks, Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, said, "I find it quite appalling we live in the poorest state in this union and we have the highest sales tax on food in this union." He argues that we should cut the grocery tax in half and increase the cigarette tax to make up the lost revenue. I agree, and I have a difficult time imagining that anyone could disagree. However, Franks' opponent and current state auditor, Phil Bryant, does disagree. Well, at least Republicans are consistent in their disdain for the poor.

Can it be any wonder that Mississippi consistently ranks at or near the bottom in terms of education and has more churches per capita than any other state? This could just be a coincidence, but somehow I'm not so sure.

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