Inequality and Poverty American-Style


Irrespective of ones circumstances or stage of life, illness is never welcome, in America if your poor it can prove to be a total catastrophe, ending often in personal bankruptcy. “According to a report published in The American Journal of Medicine, medical bills are a major factor in more than 60% of the personal bankruptcies in the United States“. Health care insurance an unaffordable luxury, for the 15% or 50 million people now living in ‘official’ poverty in America, anxiously relying on good luck and a poor diet to keep sickness at a bay.

Average individual health care insurance costs around $200 per month, unbelievable as it may sound to the unfamiliar, this does not automatically cover prescription charges. Having paid around $12,000 into insurance company coffers and made no claim in five years, a friend recently needed hospital care; no charge, antibiotics however, prescribed and dispensed $50 – ‘have a nice day’. My daughter living in New York with family health insurance, was charged $100, yes $100, for an ameliorative wonder cream earlier in the year, one can only imagine it was infused with miracle oil and laced with melted gold. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) in a recent documentary state, the US healthcare industry is the largest in the world, with “$300 billion a year spent on prescription drugs alone”, a figure that is rising in tandem with the pharmaceutical companies colossal profits, the top three according to Fortune Magazine making  $27,000 millions in 2010. Surprisingly or perhaps not given US politicians relationship with corporate leaders, Noam Chomsky states, the prices set by these companies are protected in law. Unsurprisingly and in keeping with commonsense and codes of social fairness, 80% of the population would support lower rates.

The American health care system is a moneymaking machine for the Insurance giants and their pharmaceutical bedfellows and a major cause of poverty and hardship in the country. It is inefficient and at approximately twice the cost per capita of comparable countries, extremely expensive, Cuba e.g. Noam Chomsky says “achieves the same outcomes at 5% the cost.“ The fact that the worlds only so called ‘super-power’ does not offer a health care system to all 311 million or so of its citizens, based on need and “free at the point of delivery”, reflects the driving political/economic ideological doctrine that underpins all areas of life in America; Capitalism, with its single motive; profit. It is a system that is fuelling economic and social inequalities that are trapping increasing numbers of people into a life of poverty devoid of hope.

Disadvantaged and living in poverty 

More people are living in poverty in America now than at any time since 1959 when data was first collected with around 43 millions (August 2012 figures) a 70% increase in five years, relying on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – Food Stamps for their meals. The 15% figure may be an understatement as the income level used by the government to define  ‘poverty’ increases based on the rate of inflation. The threshold established for a family of four in 2011 was $23,021 per annum, extreme poverty where 21 million Americans live – $11,000. However if as The Economic Collapse, report on Poverty in America state “inflation was still calculated the way that it was 30 or 40 years ago, the poverty line would be much, much higher and millions more Americans would be considered to be living in poverty”. Wealth and poverty predictably falls along lines demarcated by race as well as social backgrounds, 27% of Hispanics and Blacks and 31% of single mothers, compared with 13% of adults generally and 11% of families are living under the demoralizing, de humanising shadow of poverty.

Since the late 1970’s poverty rates and levels of economic equality have been dramatically increasing. Under the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the days of unbridled competition and market forces that his administration, and across the sea The Iron Lady championed, poverty numbers leapt to a tat below the present figure.  Reagan famously admitted to having “fought a war on poverty and poverty won.” Those under fire were poorly armed and inadequately prepared, the battle rages today and more furiously, with inequities and social disadvantages acute.

Lack of opportunities and a plethora of social difficulties, many of which, including overcrowding in housing and at school, poor nutrition and health care, contravene the spirit at least of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, in Article 25/1, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well- being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.” Living in unsafe communities, with perhaps little or no parental support destroys hope and makes people more susceptible to emotional problems and psychological issues, with low self-esteem, depression, anxiety and substance/alcohol addiction potential consequences. Those coming from poor backgrounds living disadvantaged lives in difficult circumstances, outgunned and outmanoeuvred, are being slaughtered on the economic battleground.

Unemployment or poorly paid work is regarded by World Hunger as the primary causes of poverty in America, but Frances Stewart, Professor emeritus at Oxford Department of international Development takes a different, more just view. She believes that the equitable distribution of resources, “from the privileged to the deprived, would be enough to eliminate poverty in high and middle income countries”. Not simply the redistribution of wealth but resources more broadly, to, as she puts it, “improve the health, the education, the assets and the productivity of the poor so that the improving of their lives can become self sustaining.” The fair and equitable sharing of resources to meet the needs of everyone in society is an economic model rooted in compassion and justice. Beyond ideological constraints of the various political isms of old, sharing as a rational economic principle, is an idea whose time has perhaps arrived. It is of course, foreign to capitalist principles that believe in the wisdom of the market, to house, educate heal and clothe the peoples of the world. At least this is the justifying jargon of the economic/political just as they promote an unjust system that concentrates wealth and power so effectively in their hands.

World Hunger’s position is that there are three factors causing citizens in the most powerful nation on earth, as US politicians like to exclaim, to be living in poverty and without decent education adequate housing and or appropriate health care; “ 1. Poverty in the world. 2. The operation of the political and economic system in the United States which has tended to keep people from poor families poor and 3. Actual physical mental and behavioural issues among some people who are poor All too often poor health-physiological and psychological is a consequence of a system and not a major cause of poverty.

People are trapped into poverty World Hunger discovered, by an unjust political/economic system, in which power rests with the wealthy. Those born into poor circumstances face a mountain of disadvantages, and as BBC4’s documentary Why Poverty, found “they almost never escape”. In a society that champions material success and individual achievement above all else, when all time and energy is given over to addressing the fundamental requirements of living, life becomes arduous and demoralizing. Tedium by design orchestrated by the ‘Masters of Mankind’ as Adam Smith famously called the rich and powerful, who like nothing more than an exhausted, depressed populace, purged of the necessary energy to revolt, to protest, to demand justice and equality.

Unjust unrestrained inequality

If you are born into poverty in America, with all the inherent disadvantages, the overwhelming tendency is to remain there. Social mobility is almost unheard of, the Economic Mobility Project found, Huffington Post report, that “the United States has lower, not higher, mobility than other wealthy countries… very depressing for those who subscribe to the notion that America is a meritocracy and a “land of opportunity.” Economic inequality is a worldwide social poison not just in the US, who lays claim to an often cited, Hollywood fashioned, rarely achieved ‘American dream’ of opportunity and material success, whilst simultaneously following political/economic and social ideologies that strengthen inequality and encourage division.

In fact, as Why Poverty show, the 400 richest people in America “control more wealth than the bottom households combined, that’s 150 million people” A staggering shameful statistic, in a country overflowing with resources that espouses democratic principles of freedom, equality and justice to all and sundry. A country with, according to Noam Chomsky 25% of the worlds wealth, down from an unprecedented 50% in 1948, that, whilst 50 million of its citizens languish in poverty and with a fiscal cliff looming, somehow manages to spend and justify so doing, $1 trillion on it’s armed forces, more than the military expenditure of the rest of the world combined. To one unfamiliar with the ways of corporate political life and the complexities of democracy, this sounds like collective, or State madness, does it not.

Since 2009, Bloomberg 2/10/12 report “the wealthiest one per-cent, incomes rose 5.5 per-cent. For the 96 million households in the bottom 80 per-cent, average earnings fell 1.7 per-cent,“ strengthening the acute chasm existing between the wealthy fraction and the rest, the 99% as the Occupy Movement termed it. In fact the greatest concentrations of wealth reside with as Noam Chomsky makes clear, “1% of the 1%”, making the ‘The Great Beast’, who must be tamed at all costs, the remaining 99.9%. Economic and social inequality reinforces inherent injustices, causes deep resentment, anger and despair. And as has always been true, is the single greatest cause of poverty, which Frances Stewart states “can be eliminated… what is needed is a significant reduction in the quite obscene levels of inequality that prevail today”. The rich, it has been said, must give up what they want, so that the poor may have what they need; namely food, a home, access to decent education and health care and the opportunity to live fulfilled, dignified lives.

Money power control, money power money and more money     

In a world where ‘the market’ is believed to be infallible and all knowing, where the golden egg and reason for doing, and one suspects for living, is profit, at all costs profit, every aspect of existence in such a socially divisive unjust system is seen as a commodity, fit to be traded; to be bought at the lowest possible $ price and sold for the highest amount, no matter the human cost and environmental impact; global climate change, deforestation, water and air pollution and child labour in the Near-East springing readily to mind.

Such a system, World Hunger state, will inevitably “create a significant amount of poverty.“ and a “significant amount of unemployment.” Surely then the model should be changed, this seems the obvious conclusion to observations that perpetuate inequality and result in such hardship and injustice, as Frances Stewart makes clear, “as a result of the way the global economy is organised, inequality is not falling but rising in most countries today”.

Increases in poverty and inequality are of little concern to those pulling the American political/economic strings; the corporate leaders, financial magnates and business tycoons, sitting pretty in the 1% club lounge, with all benefits, from preferential tax arrangements, and access to congressmen, senators, presidents and administration staff. Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, claims in Why Poverty “there are many bought politicians in Washington”. Bought by the rich, the present day merchants and traders; the hedge fund managers, brokers, CEO’s of major corporations, such as David and Charles Koch. Estimated to be worth $62 billion, they have donated funds to over half the members of the Senate and the House of Representatives, and ploughed millions of dollars into 230 university colleges to promote courses, which support their ‘free’ market ideology. A ‘free’ market in name only, skewed from the off, over which they and their cronies have overwhelming control.

And what do the wealthy expect in exchange for their millions and billions of dollars ‘donated’ to politicians, these are not, after all philanthropic acts from men of social conscience. Access to decision makers is the primary aim, in order to exert influence and fashion policy, ensuring the social order is maintained as the economic system remains constructed in such a manner as to benefit them in the fullest possible way, so that the ultra, mega rich and super stinking wealthy become richer and richer. Causing the economic and social inequalities to become wider, the lives of the 99.9% increasingly arduous and painful. More than enough, not enough to satiate the insatiable and so the madness continues unrestrained. Until, and perhaps that day can be sensed in the present fog of greed, uncertainty and injustice; commonsense prevails and principles of goodness begin to govern, in which the needs of all, to live secure, creative, happy lives are met, irrespective of social background or the size of ones bank account.

Graham Peebles is director of the Create Trust. He can be reached at: graham@thecreatetrust.org.

Graham Peebles is director of the Create Trust. He can be reached at: graham@thecreatetrust.org

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