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Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.

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Real Estate Updates

Oprah Winfrey is renting out her Gold Coast co-op for $15,000 a month.  While a bit steep for most of us, it gets you 4,600 square feet of living space, including a 1,200 square foot master suite with his and her baths.  Best of all, the unit is in pristine condition since Oprah never moved in after purchasing it in 2006.  Apparently her condo a few blocks away, two other houses in the Chicago area, and her mansion in California, purchased in 2001 for $50 million provide her with sufficient living options.

For the more modest investor, one might consider a house in a nice inner ring suburb of Cleveland, Ohio with award winning schools where homes are being listed for less than they were paid for twenty years ago, improvements included.  Listed, that is, not sold.  (I know this to be true; I’m trying to sell one of them.)

The really affluent real estate investor will want to look at housing in the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, where the monthly cost for each prisoner’s quite modest bedroom suite and bath, considerably smaller than the one in Oprah’s co-op, is $31,666.  This does not include the share of each prisoner’s cost of intelligence officers and court expenses which would more than double the monthly “rent.”  Of course, housing at Guantanamo includes meals which average out to $38.45 per prisoner per day, a bit higher than the per diem at a nearby Florida state prison of $2.29.  It’s nice to know how we’re spending public dollars for real estate in this era of mass foreclosures.

Moving beyond the anecdotal, a Stanford University study of census data shows how middle class areas of this country have shrunk over the past forty years while income disparity has grown.  In 1970 65% of families lived in areas defined as middle class.  In 2007 that number had shrunk to 44%.  In 2007 a third of all families lived in pockets of either affluence or poverty, up from 15% in 1970.  Philadelphia, once home to many thriving middle class neighborhoods, for example, now shows on the study’s map as a red stripe of wealthy suburbs curving around a poor, blue urban center, broken by a few red dots of gentrification.

The implications of this for children are profound.  One example is the growing gap in test scores between rich and poor children, now 40 % bigger than it was in 1970.  The gap between rich and poor in college completion has grown by more than 50% since the 1990’s.  Fewer than 10 % of low income children finish.  John Boehner and Herman Cain may want us to believe that everyone can share their rags to riches story.  The evidence shows how few actually can or do.  As William Julius Wilson, a sociologist at Harvard puts it, “Rising inequality is beginning to produce a two-tiered society in America in which the more affluent citizens live lives fundamentally different form the middle and lower-income groups.  This divide decreases a sense of community.”

Meanwhile, Americans calling attention to these alarming, depressing, and obscene real estate notices are being evicted from their temporary homes in public spaces all across the country.  This week it was the original Occupy Wall Street group being chased from Zuccotti Park in a pre-dawn assault by riot clad New York City police.  This rag tag expression of democracy may be short on strategies and on clear public policy proposals.  But they are bravely sounding a prophetic alarm that others have been slow to take up.  I asked my class this week how many of them had heard a sermon on the Occupy movement or its concerns, or had participated in an adult forum on a related topic at their church in the last couple of months.  Less than one quarter of them raised their hands.

The lectionary for this coming Sunday celebrating the “Reign of Christ” asks, “Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or naked, or in prison?”  Preachers could hardly have a clearer invitation to address the prophetic implications of the growing economic divide in this nation.  It would be nice if 99% of us seized the opportunity.

John H. Thomas

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