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America's Real Disgrace

In an interesting op-ed piece in the New York Times, Angus Deaton, Nobel Prize winning American economist, makes a point that extreme poverty is a very real issue in the United States. He points out that 3.2 million Americans live on less than $1.90 a day, the World Bank criterion for poverty. More importantly, if the cost of living is taken into account (the World Bank figure takes into account differences in prices, but not availability of necessities such as housing, heating, etc.), then the per day income below which one is in “absolute poverty,” is, in the United States, $4.00 per day. In America, 5.3 million people fall within this criterion level, making the percentage of our population in poverty 1.7%. In absolute numbers, the U.S. has about the same number of people in poverty as Senegal, in Africa and more than Sierra Leone or, in Asia, Nepal. In terms of percentage, the U.S. has a smaller percentage than Spain, Italy, Portugal or Greece, which are still suffering from massive unemployment and government debt, but more than double (and sometimes five times more) the percentage of other EU countries or of Australia, Japan, or South Korea.

What is ironic, is that, of the countries with more than 1% poverty rates, only the U.S. is among the top 15 richest countries in the world. We continue to lead most other developed Western countries (except Luxembourg, Ireland, Norway, Switzerland and San Marino) in per capita PPP income level, but also in poverty levels. This is what income disparity is about.

In Orange County, California, where I live, our Sheriff’s Department is in the process of moving about 1,000 homeless people from their encampment alongside the Santa Ana River, near the stadiums for the Los Angeles Angels baseball team, the Anaheim Ducks hockey team and within a few miles of Disneyland. Orange County, home of several of the richest cities in the United States, has nearly 5,000 homeless people living on its streets.  A 2017  United Way study found that the homeless in Orange County are predominantly U.S. citizens, 90% U.S. born, mostly long term residents of the county (more than 10 years) and more than half of them 50 years of age or older. They are our own people who are failing to get by in the county where they have lived for years.

The argument made by Nobel Laureate Angus Deaton is that Americans should be turning their attention to poverty here at home instead of only in foreign countries known for their high levels of poverty. But perhaps more to the point is that our national attention ignores the levels of poverty in America, as well as the declining lifepans, particularly in areas of America such as Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta where, as Deaton points out, the lifespan is shorter than in Bangladesh or Vietnam. While we ignore what should be an American crisis, our leaders debate how much to increase our swollen defense budget—the highest by far of any country in the world—and worry about the effects of our national debt on our grandchildren—who, for a whole segment of the population are already growing up in poverty and ill-health. We talk about the deterioration of our roads and bridges as a national disgrace, but ignore the homeless who line our city streets. We talk about government assistance programs such as Medicaid, Medicare and food stamps being “unsustainable” because of their high cost, when they are the only thing keeping millions of Americans from dying or starving.

Decades of policy decisions that have favored the wealthy have contributed to economic disparity in the United States that has reached a level of crisis and national disgrace. This is not the subject of political debate at a national level in this country. Instead we worry about losing our competitive economic edge with China, about new immigrants not contributing to our country, and about whether we have enough battle ships and fighter planes. And we cut taxes, which should be the source of funding for safety net programs for those at the bottom of the income scale.


Reader Comments (10)

Thank you for a very important article.
Few Americans know or want to know that one American dies every thirty six seconds of poverty induced factors (mid-range estimate Columbia Univ,), that one in three Americans will die to the level of extreme inequality in our country (Harvard Univ in BMJ), that 50 million Americans rank in the poorest 10% of world population (Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report) or that over one third of the wealth of the entire nation has transfered to the already welthiest Americans since the 2008 crash.
I have rich friends that think nothing of spending $20.00 per pound for organic dog treats but would never consider giving a bone to the poor.

January 25, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDariel Garner

What you're primarily describing here is a mental health crisis, not a poverty crisis. There are very few successful living options for the chronically mentally ill, so they start moving west and end up homeless in L.A., Portland or Seattle. However, there is more than enough money to take care of these genuinely vulnerable and needy citizens if apportioned properly. The problem is that lawmakers have so incentivized non-participation in the work force for about eighty years now, that the tax dollars are not going to those citizens most in need, but instead, are going to a group of able-bodied people not willing to fairly participate in the social contract. A great deal of our tax dollars are also going to assist non-citizens in a multitude of ways. This leaves the aging, mentally ill population of America with very few relief services to assist them. Cutting taxes for the job creators isn't the problem. Trying to steal their money through some sort of cognitively dissonant concept involving "economic disparity" is both evil and foolish. The problem is the ever-increasing number of people who applaud and revel in the welfare state, who see socialism or communism as a means to ensure equal outcomes for all. That philosophy put into practice is the death knell for any country and its people because it can only rely on totalitarianism and the abeyance of human rights to exist.

January 25, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMark Wheeler

These statistics are appalling. I care little whether citizens who are so very poor are mentally ill and therefore do not see themselves as able to work or are in fact unable to work. There is nothing to prevent a redistribution of income in which everyone is guaranteed a minimum income of something like $30,000 a year (in addition to the present safety nets, which have big holes in them as it is ) which that person can then depend on to build toward more (or not). Why are hedge-fund managers making not one million a year, but billions? What do they produce? Why are the CEOs of health-insurance companies making in excess of $2 million a year? Why are university presidents making $500,000 a year? And why, when they make this obscene amount of money that no sane person would even have time to contemplate spending, are they not taxed at the rate this imcome level was taxed in the U.S. in the 1950s? It is to our national shame that income has accumulated in the top 1% of the population to an unprecedented degree. That is what will lead to violent upheavals in this society, and we've seen the beginning of such a devolution with the election of the abominable Trump, who is trying to move the country toward dictatorship.

January 25, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAnca Vlasopolos

There is everything to prevent "a redistribution of wealth." Let's be honest, No matter how well-intended the effort, there were always be smarter, stronger, more aggressive people who will figure out how to have more than those people who are less capable. These accumulators of wealth invent, innovate, take risks, create jobs, bend rules, break rules and sometimes disregard the well-being of others in order to achieve. But those people are both necessary and inevitable in our hard-wired hierarchical drive to attain status. Also, "a redistribution of wealth" ultimately results in governmental theft of private property. It's an incredibly dangerous thing to suggest a minimum yearly income. You immediately deincentivize the need to exchange labor for wealth. An even larger percentage of the population will become fat, lazy dullards. This is a highly undesirable outcome by anyone's measure. In a free market system, there is no such thing as an "obscene" amount of money. The market rewards the bold, the brazen and the brilliant and yet they still sometimes get punished for their intrepidness. There's nothing shameful about the earnings or wealth of our top citizens. It's a weak argument to stomp your foot on the ground and decry that driven and successful people make way more money than other people. I think you've missed the reality of economic Marxism in this country. There isn't enough widespread hunger or unavailability of possessions in this country to cause the kind of economic uprising you're suggesting. It's the loss of individual liberty in favor of group identity that's causing the current divide. All that President Trump is doing is calling out the hypocrites regarding their own petty tyrannies and saying that he's not going to indulge their politically correct, dictatorial social agendas.

January 25, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMark Wheeler

These comments represent different value systems and different stores (due probably to different sources) of information. To some of us, dramatic economic disparity is bad, regardless of its source, but particularly if it results from the way the economic system is structured so that those with the most wealth continue to preserve it and even gain at the expense of those without. Poverty at the level of inability to maintain health and well being is a societal evil, in some of our minds. That one of the richest countries in the world has some of the largest numbers of citizens in poverty is a sign of a flawed system. And by the way, the higher percentage of those in poverty in the United States cannot, by any stretch of the imagination or exercise of logic be explained by more or more poorly treated mental illness in the US. It is systemic and related to unfettered capitalism and greed that is perpetuated by our political establishment.

January 25, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCasey Dorman

There will always be poor people in any society but this country has more programs to assist the poor than in any other country of which I'm aware. The company I work for offers dozens of such programs. Where is the data that says that the wealthy get wealthier at the expense of the poor? Generally, the wealthy get wealthier by outmaneuvering people who actually have wealth. I didn't say that the sole reason there are poor people is due to mental illness. I said that the particular phenomenon of indigence you were describing in Orange County is highly correlated with mental illness. I've seen many disheartening videos of the homeless in your area and there is no doubt that the mental health system has failed a large percentage of those people.

Yes, primarily unfettered capitalism is a system that produces wildly disparate outcomes while still offering equal opportunity for all who choose to participate.. This remains the most desirable economic system available. Any economic system involving government ownership of the means or products of industry is both immoral and unsustainable and will lead to all of us living a half step above a tent city level of existence....except for the few in control who get to decide just how much food, water, medicine, clothing, shelter and children we'll be allowed to have.

January 26, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMark Wheeler

This is a very real and important discussion. I do find it interesting that many, if not most of these same leaders would identify themselves religuously as "Christian," when Jesus' primary message was the importance of remembering the most poor, and infirmed of society. As well, the message clearly stated to our immigrants at Ellis Island was one of sanctuary and belonging. It seems the way to create change in our society could be through our religious leaders, as we've seen with our most current Catholic Pope. I do not underestimate the power that religion still has in our society, unfortunately Christianity's message in general has been severely warped and distorted by current leaders to fit an unhealthy societal agenda. Whether one believes in any religious tenets or not, one cannot underestimate the power that religion has to shape society. In fact, one could argue that is the reason it was created in the first place. When Scientists argue with "facts" that fall on deaf ears, religious leaders have almost magical powers to mold society in ways others cannot. Getting down to the core values and addressing the cognitive dissonance may be a way to bring about a real change in the way leaders perceive those being led. It is currently inconvenient to bring up issues of poverty and of mental health, yet voters often vote according to alignment with their own religious values. I've heard it many times within circles of conservative voters, they believe their candidate was somehow "ordained by God," so no amount of Scientific fact changes their view on issues their candidate holds as important to address (or refuses to address.)

January 26, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea Culy

The United States compares rather poorly to other developed countries in how we provide programs for our poor. Read "How US Welfare Compares Across the Globe" at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-37159686

January 26, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCasey Dorman

The article you're referring to is basically judging the cash payout to single parents. It doesn't look at all the other entitlements that a single parent is offered such as Medicaid insurance, subsidized housing, WIC, energy assistance, child care, education, job training and many other programs so that the cash payout is basically discretionary income.

I watched this dynamic at work innumerable times in the area where I was raised: A couple has kids, doesn't get married, receives all the aforementioned benefits, lies around all day, has grandma watch the kids every night so they can go out to the bar and spend all of their tax-payer dollars drinking and using illicit drugs. A culture of irresponsible expectancy was inculcated in this way and ended up driving away most of the major employers in the area.

January 27, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMark Wheeler

Looking at the USA as a caste system adds to the understanding of issues of class, race and wealth. https://www.schwartzreport.net/indian-scholar-makes-case-america-atrocious-caste-system/?utm_source=Stephan+Schwartz%27s+Email+List&utm_campaign=334a1b8e4e-SR_Daily_Digest_2016&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_0eb25d4404-334a1b8e4e-242485425 Several years ago it was noted that class mobility in the USA was lower than many countries and actually on a par with India. Considering the greatly increasing wealth inequality in the USA the trend may be that we will eventually become #1 in class rigidity.

January 27, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDariel Garner

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