Closing the gap between rich and poor is not primarily about the economy, rather it’s a matter of political will. And, unfortunately with the present administration, it’s just not there. 

To close the gap, it’s not a matter of swallowing an economic pill, as if it’s a magic bullet. A number of factors are involved both on the federal level and the local level. I will address the issue of the disparity between the ultra-rich and the poor in this article on the federal level, and then on the local level in a future column.

First, budgets are the practical consequences (or a concrete picture) of one’s values. With this in mind, the U.S. spends over a trillion dollars on the military, national security, cybersecurity, and the manufacture of weapons, including the modernization of nukes and drones. At the start of the pandemic crisis, the U.S. government paid upfront Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and Grumman handsomely for churning out weapons. 

Lockheed Martin, for example, received about $450 million to manufacture weapons. With this bonanza, Lockheed Martin is now hiring more workers. Contrast this with the millions of people on unemployment who are still waiting to get their $1,200 stimulus check from the feds. 

Moreover, Trump’s budget for 2021 proposes an increase for fossil fuels like gas and oil, nuclear weapons, and for anti-immigration staffing and resources. The kicker is this: why spend billions of dollars modernizing nuclear weapons since they are unshootable from a moral and ethical perspective. Meanwhile, the Covid-19 bill or Heroes Act proposes to set-up tent cities for veterans in the parking lots of VA hospitals. (See Patricia Hynes, Informed Comment, June 17, 2010). 

Second, the crisis caused by Covid-19 looms larger than the Great Depression of 1929, yet President Trump and V.P. Mike Pence continue to downplay the economic, political, and social impact of the virus. At the rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 20, 2020 President Trump said that the reason for the spike in cases had to do with our increased use of testing and suggested we should slow down our testing. On the other hand, it’s possible the virus will remain a global threat for two or three more years, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  

Covid-19 poses a humongous threat to the poor, blacks in particular, and the homeless people, since they often have underlying conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure and emotional stress, unlike the rich. This means we ought to rebuild our health-care system to deal with the effects of Covid-19. In order to do this, the military budget must be slashed in a significant way and we will need a universal health-care system to take care of all Americans, including immigrants. We may need to take our troops out of Afghanistan and the Middle East to fund our domestic needs. 

My view may seem to be utopian, but as more people see their loved ones die and realize, upfront and personally, how deadly this virus really is, the politicians may be forced to take drastic measures like universal healthcare rather than see money doled out piecemeal. (See Francesco Sisci, “Why Beijing must change before it’s too late,” Asia Times April 23, 2020, p. 5). The U.S. should take a page out of the Chinese playbook in regard to the global pandemic. China resolved the dilemma between the health of its citizens and economic security by choosing life and mandatory social distancing over the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Third, Congress needs to immediately raise the minimum wage from $7.27 to $15.00 per hour. If Biden wins the election, he should spend at least $1-2 trillion on infrastructure jobs similar to what President Roosevelt did with the Civil Conservation Corps and other projects in the 1930s. We need bridges repaired, lakes purified of pollution, cybernetworks improved—the list goes on and on. The feds can recover some of that money in the form of income tax returns and money added to the Social Security System, while simultaneously helping the minorities in our country. 

Fourth, our system of justice needs a complete overhaul. Incarceration affects people of color and the poor disproportionately to others with money and connections. Currently, there are about 77 million adults in the U.S. who have a criminal record. This includes seven million persons who are in jail or prison, or on parole or probation. In the U.S., about 200,000 are released from jail or prison weekly. Roughly, 64,000 inmates and staff have been infected with the Covid-19 virus and hundreds of them have died because of the virus. In the past three months, the jail population in Kentucky has been reduced by 32 percent and the prison population by 7 percent. 

Also, there are about 44,000 indirect consequences of a criminal conviction after incarceration. It’s virtually impossible for those who leave prison to get a license as a plumber, driver, manicurist, barber, or mid-wife. Yet prisons today train inmates to take courses allowing them to take some of the aforementioned jobs. What good is this training, if it can’t be used? Rules affecting former inmates may include facing huge barriers like the ability to get a passport or driver’s license, serve in the armed forces, hold public office, plus veterans can possibly lose their health insurance and pensions. See https://www.juancole.com/2020/06/thosands-consequences-incarceration/html

Also, after incarceration former prisoners should not have to put on their job application that they were convicted of a felony. This makes it impossible for felons to get a job, hence the high recidivism rate in the U.S. I also feel that those who have spent time in prison should be allowed to vote. If they already paid the price of incarceration, why not allow them this basic freedom? 

Richard Penaskovic is an Emeritus Professor at Auburn University. His writings have appeared in the Birmingham News, Columbus- Ledger Enquirer, Montgomery Advertiser and online by Informed Comment and Politurco.

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