“What the protests tell us: Invest in social equity, not nuclear weapons.”
— Rachel Brown
“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than programs of social uplift are approaching spiritual doom.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Covid-19 virus did not come out of the blue like a sudden hiccup or strike of lightning. Rather, the yawning chasm between the haves and the have-nots brought about global economic collapse. This widening gap between the rich and the poor has been a silent killer undetected for several generations and goes back to the 70s, and not to be chalked up merely to the actions of the Trump administration.
Democracy around the world has been contaminated by the actions and greed of the wealthy elites, called by some commentators as the “plutocrats.” These plutocrats maximize profits for the elite while simultaneously minimizing the health and welfare of the have-nots. As the economist Joseph Stiglitz once quipped, “We built an economy with no shock absorbers.” (See https://www.juancole.com2020/05/pandemic-burgeoning-inequality.html).
The relationship between the haves and the have-nots may be seen by the historian Ronald P. Formisano in his book, "Plutocracy in America: How Increasing Inequality Destroys the Middle Class and Exploits the Poor," (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015). On page four, he writes that “… economic gaps between the ultra-rich and poor undermine the hopes and principles of any functioning democracy, fostering government, business, and legal interests that are ‘of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich’.”
Since 1950, the income inequality between white workers and black workers has remained steady. The jobless rate for black workers has been 16.8 percent as compared to white workers at 12.4 percent, as of May 2020. At the same time, 50 percent of black adults have a job and that number may decrease because of Covid-19. In 2016, the median net worth of black families stood at $17,150 while that of a white family was almost 10 times higher at $171,000, according to the Federal Research Survey of Consumer Finances as noted by the Brookings Institution.
The Census Bureau reported that black families are 40 percent less likely to own their own homes as opposed to white families. Also, a Gallup Poll found in 2017 that only 38 percent of black respondents had money in the stock market as opposed to 60 percent of white respondents. Finally, Robert Fairlie a professor of economics at the University of Santa Cruz in California noted that two out of five business owned by Afro-Americans “were forced to close” in April, 2020, compared to one in five businesses owned by white families. For more on this see Sarah Hansen, “Here’s What the Racial Wealth Gap in America Looks Like Today,” in Forbes magazine, June 5, 2020.
It seems that the American Dream (that promises that hard work will lead to economic success and happiness) no longer holds true for the poor and even the decreasing middle class. The Atlantic magazine in May, 2016 pointed out that 47 percent of Americans would have great difficulty to pay a $400 bill that they were not at all expecting in any given month. There are a number of factors that make life extremely difficult for the poor and downtrodden in the U.S. such as:
1. The ongoing racial bias in the housing and rental system in Milwaukee and other cities in the U.S.
2. A poor educational system particularly in rural counties like Lowndes County in the western part of Alabama.
3. A regressive tax on food (of all things) that makes it difficult for poor and middle-class families to buy nutritious food for themselves and their children.
4. The 1965 Voter Registration Act that minimizes the voice of the poor as seen recently in the primary election in Georgia where folks had to wait up to four hours to vote plus having to deal with machines that did not work properly.
5. A system of justice that punishes the poor and minorities disproportionately. For example, I know a man who is in jail because of the Three and Out policy. His third offense was for stealing a few steaks from Kroger.
6. The high concentration of crime in certain areas of practically every large American city like Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Oakland, Houston and Detroit, in large part because of the inability to find jobs.
7. The “War on Drugs” that puts young black men in jail because even jobs that pay a minimum wage aren’t enough for them to make ends meet. See Peter Admirand, “Notes and Comments: Make America (More or Less) Faithful Again,” in the Heythrop Journal, 50, (2018), pp. 295-300.
8. How can folks who earn the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour make their bills? And how can they ever look forward to retirement? How can they look forward to the future? And is it any wonder that they are always stressed out by worrying how they can pay their bills each week, thus leading to failing health?
9. I can’t imagine how those without a job can pay for medicine when they lack health insurance.
In a future column I will address what can be done to help lower the gap between the haves and have-nots.
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.