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In response to a column I had written about economic inequality in the United States, a reader e-mailed me about her experiences. After growing up on a farm near a small Minnesota town, she began cleaning homes for upper-class doctors, politicians, and bankers in the state. She saw wealth in homes, cars, and furnishings that surprised her. But she was absolutely appalled that the owners knew nothing about how other people in a lower economic level lived. In 20 years of cleaning those homes she saw excess and waste and complete ignorance of how the average family lived. She has also worked for Walmart.
She ended her e-mail with a warning to those who don’t understand what is happening in this unequal country: “It won’t be the wealthy that changes the world. It will be the young, the poor, the oppressed, people that know that money is only paper with green ink on it. When it becomes blatantly apparent that the poor have always been mules for the rich on their way to the country club or what have you, people will begin to take their lives back and demand their basic rights.”
When the poor make this charge for their rights in a society is open to debate. Jim Hightower, a longtime social and economic critic in his article “What’s Killing The Middle Class?” might have some answers for us. He writes that America has had only one period when our middle class consisted of 60% of our total population, a portion of society that is necessary for political control of a country. Hightower claims that our national mobilization for World War II “created an explosion of new jobs, growth, and opportunities for millions who’d long been blocked from sharing in our nation’s prosperity. The war effort opened people’s eyes, boosted confidence and raised expectations, leading to a post-war rise in unionism, passage of the GI Bill, a housing boom and a doubling of the median family income in only 30 years. In short, by the late 1970’s we had created a middle (and the only)!) class.” The Great Recession of 2008 has effectively destroyed our middle class.” Now the One Percent possess more dollars and assets than the bottom 90%. Hightower graphically describes our society this way now: “The One Percent eats a seven-course meal made up of foie gras, chateaubriand, bouillabaisse, and other rich gourmet delights, while the seven-course meal for 90% consists of a six-pack and road-kill possum.”
Aristotle Was Right
Historians who have studied the demise of empires agree that when the balance between the rich and everybody else is maintained a society will survive and be happier and healthier. They universally agree that the Roman Empire failed because the rich had way too much influence in government. Romans appointed Tribunes to represent the common people but the rich soon bought them off, perhaps the first use of political payoffs promoted by laws for the rich like Citizens United. The Greek philosopher Aristotle argued that when the rich govern, they will hoard their wealth and oppress the poor (Who’d ‘a thunk it!!), and that if the poor rule, they will confiscate the property of the rich. Aristotle insisted that the only way to have a stable government is to maintain a very large middle class. He wrote: “Without a middle class a city not of free men, but of masters and slaves, the one despising, the other envying; and nothing can be more fatal to friendship and good fellowship in states than this.”
We presently have 140 million people living in poverty in the United States. Because access to health care is a major problem for the poor, about 250,000 poor die each year from the lack of it. I repeat: the One Percent owns more wealth than the bottom 90% combined. A full 60% more Americans live below the poverty line than in 1968 when LBJ declared the War on Poverty. The most devastating stat is the fact that 43% of all American children live below the minimum income level necessary to meet basic needs of a family. One in four kids is on food stamps (SNAP)—and 8.4 million people were lifted over the poverty level by participating in the SNAP program. Almost five million households and 1.3 million families with children had no income whatsoever last year. The average cost of one
SNAP meal averages about $1.40. Try living on that some time.
A Satiric Answer for Resolving The Problem of Poverty
Poverty has always been with us over the centuries and there have been numerous solutions promulgated by economists, philosophers, dictators, and columnists. One solution published anonymously 289 years ago in Ireland continues to be the most creative. The Irish have always had problems with the domination of English landlords over the centuries. A 3,000 word political pamphlet written by Jonathan Swift, the author of “Gulliver’s Travels,” still makes a strong political point. His essay “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public” lit a fire under both English lords and Irish peasants.
The satire is written in the smooth language of a reasonable bureaucrat: “It is a melancholy object to those who walk through…the streets, roads, and cabin doors crowded with the beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags and importuning every passenger for an alms….whoever could find out a fair, cheap, and easy method of making these children sound and useful members of the commonwealth.” Swift’s solution: “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London that a young, healthy child well nursed is at a year old (28 pounds) a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled, and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or ragout.” He went on to explain that with 120,000 surplus children produced each year in Catholic Ireland, with 20,000 reserved for more breeding, this proposal would bring tremendous revenue to the families and government. He then goes into great detail on the use of body parts, particularly the skin which could be used for fine women’s boots. It remains the classic of satiric solutions to poverty.
Some Results of the Latest “The Souls of Poor Folk” Audit
Fifty years ago Dr. Martin Luther King developed the first survey of poverty in the United States called “The Poor People’s Campaign.” This survey has evolved to “The Souls of Poor Folk” and is coordinated by Reverend William Barber of the Episcopal Church, the Kairos Center, and The Institute of Policy Studies. This audit found that 40.6 million Americans subsist below the poverty line and that almost half cannot come up with $400 to cover a sudden emergency. ($400 buys you dinner for two at the Four Seasons!) The national money lender PayPal takes advantage of poor people in this country by charging to cash checks and charging exorbitant interest for weekly and monthly “payday” loans. PayPal currently has more “stores” than McDonald’s and Starbucks!
Southern states, generally led by Republican governors and legislatures, have increased poverty by refusing to expand Medicaid benefits to the poor under the Affordable Care Act and passing anti-union “right to work” legislation which ensures that workers have “the right to work for less.” Twenty-five states have passed legislation preventing cities from raising local minimum wages. All Southern states except Virginia and West Virginia have passed such legislation. Nine Southern states refused to accept Medicaid benefits. Consequently 2.4 million people make too much money to qualify for Medicaid but are too poor to buy adequate health insurance. Many small Southern hospitals have been forced to close because of the lack of revenue from Medicaid coverage.
The audit also revealed that 80% of the citizens of Lowndes County in Alabama, one of the poorest in the country, have no access to sewage systems or water treatment. This has led to the reappearance of hookworm infection which at one time had been almost eradicated from the United States.
The Richest Man In The World Forces His Workers To Pee In Bottles
Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world at about $112 billion, sometimes picks up another billion or two on a good stock market day. But his full-time warehouse employees who average $28,446 in 2018 must depend on federal and state subsidies for health care, food banks, and food stamps (SNAP) to survive. In Ohio, one in ten Amazon employees are enrolled in SNAP. In Pennsylvania, one in nine. In Arizona it’s one out of three. Amazon’s average salary is well below the U.S. living wage. Why would any state or city want Amazon’s new headquarters and warehouses to locate within their jurisdiction when they would also have to subsidize its employees for healthcare, food, and other “benefits?” Amazon warehouse workers in Britain often have to pee in bottles while working the production lines. They also are forced to wear wristbands which track their every move on the job. It’s called a “labor-saving measure!”
Our strong middle class created from 1945 to 1975 has been destroyed over the last 40 years. The top Ten percent of Americans now own 77% of the nation’s wealth. The 20 richest Americans have more wealth among them than the bottom half of the American people—about 163 million. In 1980 Big Business CEOs earned 30 times what their workers earned. Now they earn about 325 times as much. In the last three decades the top Ten Percent got 100% of the benefits from growth of income—all while the incomes of the bottom 90% fell. This is now known as the Schwarzenegger Effect because Arnold said that having more money doesn’t make you happier. He said: “I have $50 million but I’m just as happy as when I had $48 million!”
About 30% of millennials between the ages of 25 and 34 indicate they are not affiliated with any religion. Most millennials are now sandbagged by about $30,000 in college debt while earning significantly smaller paychecks in low-paying jobs. They live with their parents and can’t afford to buy homes or cars. Back in the 18th Century Napoleon Bonaparte murmured these immortal words: “Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich.” The French millennials and peasants, hungry for bread, evidently didn’t pay much attention to his statement. They brought out that huge “French Razor” and removed many heads before their hunger was satisfied.
A Minneapolis Tribune letter writer reviewed economic conditions today that may bring out revolution: “Republications state very clearly, with their assault on the social safety net, that after a baby is born, it is on its own. Republicans have cut, and vow to continue to cut, education budgets, after-school funding, food stamps, housing subsidies, school lunches, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, to name a few, while giving a financial windfall to themselves.” These policies have made American teachers mad as hell. We need another Swift solution.