America in Denial: Width and Breadth of Today’s Poverty

Last week I read Daniel Weeks’ article, “Poverty vs. Democracy in America,” which appears in The Atlantic’s January 2014 issue.  As much as I respect Weeks’ advocacy for trying to clean American politics with the clear baptismal waters of democracy, and the many valid points he brings forth in this article, I feel very strongly that we, Americans, are time and again totally missing the point.  Mr. Weeks included!

For all the cogent explanations defining the current faces of poverty, and how we, as a society, accept, hide or deny such realities in front of us, the picture heading the article is clear evidence of how we continue, obstinately, to miss the point.  Center stage in the photo leading the article there is a young lady carrying a prominent sign which reads: “1% RICH, 99% POOR.”  And that’s exactly where we, Americans, fool ourselves… by depicting a small-in-numbers “common enemy” in that easy to hate catchall group of One-percenters: those “heartless capitalists” who control just about all the wealth and make the rest of us poor… or so we mistakenly think.

Unfortunately, and erroneously, the rest of us do not form a human link of 99 percent of the American population all navigating in the same slave flotilla taking us to new cotton fields to be picked for the elite.  If such were the case, it would be much easier to change things around and bring social justice, equity and democracy to this land of ours.  And therein our naïveté, blaming that easy 1 percent target of elite folks instead of the real culprit: an unregulated capitalist system gone berserk through the elimination of geographical barriers in the movement of capital and a poorly thought-out, unrestrained globalization of commerce.

In the United States, the One-percent Elite, today’s knighted gentry, could not maintain total rule of the nation if it weren’t for a sizeable group of squires, the Nineteen-percent Sub-elite.  In fact, if we analyze the data provided by economist Edward N. Wolff at New York University (2012), we find the change in net worth for the top 1 percent rather small, an increase from 33.8% to 35.4%, during the period 1983-2010; with an actual decrease in financial (non-home) wealth, from 42.9% to 42.1% for the same group, during the same period.  Yet, the Squires (next 19 percent of the population) increased their net worth from 47.5% to 53.5% during the same 1983-2010 period, with a similar increase in the financial (non-home) wealth… from 48.4% to 53.5%.

Those figures provided by Professor Wolff (NYU) indicate clearly that in the wealth distribution scheme of things – which directly impacts the poverty level – the Bottom Fishers (80 percent of the population in the US) lost more than ONE-THIRD of their wealth from 1983 to 2010… not to the hated elite of One-percenters (Knights) but to their lackeys, the Nineteen-percenters (Squires).  It places the wealth of the Haves, or one-fifth of the population, at 88.9% of the nation’s total; the Have-nots, representing the other four-fifths, just holding on to 11.1%.  And the disparity gets even greater when the mythical home-wealth is extracted from the figures, bringing the bottom line to 95% of the wealth held by the elite and sub-elite, and just a minuscule 5% for the masses (80 percent of the population).

So, perhaps the lead-photo’s sign in The Atlantic’s article, should have read “20% HAVES, 80% HAVE-NOTS”.  That would have been a more accurate description for the enlightening article which follows, pitting poverty and democracy in the US.

But the width of inequality, and the corresponding poverty which emanates from it, measured time and again by economists and social scientists, does not seem to surprise or bother us.  In fact, we seem antagonistic to support for redistribution policies by the government (approximately half the population feels that way). Perhaps it is a sentimental-must to stick with the mythology of the American Dream, our independent character and exceptionalism, or even accepting our position of income and wealth inequality, and corresponding poverty, among the other industrialized countries in the world.  Instead of acknowledging that we might be among the most unequal, if not THE MOST, among the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) nations, we prefer to look at the masses of undocumented immigrants from often-corrupt third world nations and rationalize how well off we are.  Unless, of course, you are among the poor… that questionably exceeds the number below the poverty line.

This width of economic inequality and poverty that we constantly measure attains a different dimension as it grows and appears irreversible… and the width becomes that new dimension: breadth.  And the breadth of inequality and poverty hovers over us as we compare ourselves, negatively, to much of the industrialized world: in infant and maternal mortality; life expectancy; the number of children living with a single parent; the lack of educational opportunities for the poor; deficient literacy (we refuse to call it illiteracy); trans-generational poverty; and the fifth-worst rate of poverty (after taking into account the effect of taxes and government spending programs) in the OECD.  That’s the true breadth of America’s interlaced inequality and poverty.

Yes, we are in total denial!

The United States may be a rich country but, unfortunately, the power elite (economic, social and political) prevent it from behaving like one.