CrossCurrents: Imagine A Country


Holly Sklar

 

Imagine a country where one out
of four children is born into poverty, and wealth is being
redistributed upward. Since the 1970s, the top 1 percent of
families have doubled their share of the nation’s
wealth—while the percentage of children living in
extreme poverty has also doubled.

Highlighting growing wage
inequality, the nation’s leading business newspaper
acknowledges, "The rich really are getting richer, and
the poor really are getting poorer."

Imagine a country where the top
1 percent of families have about the same amount of wealth as
the bottom 95 percent. Where the poor and middle class are
told to tighten their belts to balance a national budget
bloated with bailouts and subsidies for the well-off.

It’s not Mexico.

Imagine a country which demands
that people work for a living while denying many a living
wage.

Imagine a country where wages
have fallen for average workers, adjusting for inflation,
despite significant growth in the economy. Real per capita
GDP (gross domestic product) rose 33 percent from 1973 to
1994, yet real weekly wages fell 19 percent for
non-supervisory workers, the vast majority of the workforce.

It’s not Chile.

Imagine a country where the
stock market provides "payoffs for layoffs."

Imagine a country where workers
are downsized while corporate profits and executive pay are
upsized. The profits of the 500 leading corporations rose a
record 23 percent in 1996 and CEO compensation (including
salary, bonus, and long-term compensation such as stock
options) shot up 54 percent, while workers’ wages and
benefits barely kept pace with inflation. The average CEO of
a major corporation was paid as much as 42 factory workers in
1980, 122 factory workers in 1989, and 209 factory workers in
1996.

A leading business magazine
says, "People who worked hard to make their companies
competitive are angry at the way the profits are distributed.
They think it is unfair, and they are right."

It’s not England.

Imagine a country where living
standards are falling for younger generations despite the
fact that many households have two wage earners, have fewer
children, and are better educated than their parents. Since
1973, the share of workers without a high school degree has
been cut in half. The share of workers with at least a
four-year college degree has doubled.

The entry-level hourly wages of
male high school graduates fell 27.3 percent between 1979 and
1995, and the entry-level wages of women high school
graduates fell 18.9 percent.

A college degree is
increasingly necessary, but not necessarily sufficient to
earn a decent income. Between 1989 and 1995, the entry-level
wages of male college graduates fell 9.5 percent, and the
entry-level wages of women college graduates fell 7.7
percent.

Imagine a country where the
percentage of young full-time workers (ages 18-24) earning
low wages doubled from 23 percent in 1979 to 47 percent in
1992. Where families with household heads ages 25 to 34 had
1994 incomes that were $4,611 less than their 1979
counterparts.

It’s not Russia.

Imagine a country where leading
economists consider it "full employment" when the
official unemployment rate reaches 6 percent (over 7 million
people). You’re not counted officially as unemployed
just because—you’re unemployed. To be counted in
the official unemployment rate you must have searched for
work in the past four weeks. The government doesn’t
count people as "unemployed" if they are so
discouraged from long and fruitless job searches they have
given up looking. It doesn’t count as
"unemployed" those who couldn’t look for work
in the past month because they had no child care, for
example. If you need a full-time job, but you’re working
part-time—whether 1 hour or 34 hours—because
that’s all you can find, you’re counted as
employed.

A leading business magazine
observes, "Increasingly the labor market is filled with
surplus workers who are not being counted as
unemployed."

Imagine a country where there
is a shortage of jobs, not a shortage of work. Millions of
people need work and urgent work needs people—from
creating affordable housing, to repairing bridges and
building mass transit, to cleaning up pollution and
converting to renewable energy, to staffing after-school
programs and community centers.

Imagine a country where for
more and more people a job is not a ticket out of poverty,
but into the ranks of the working poor. Between 1979 and
1992, the proportion of full-time workers paid low wages
jumped from 12 percent to 18 percent—nearly one in every
five full-time workers.

Imagine a country where one out
of four officially poor children live in families in which
one or more parents work full time, year round. The official
poverty line is set well below the actual cost of minimally
adequate housing, health care, food, and other necessities.

Imagine a country where more
workers are going back to the future of sweatshops and day
labor. Corporations are replacing full-time jobs with
disposable "contingent workers." They include
temporary employees, contract workers, and "leased"
employees—some of them fired and then "rented"
back at a large discount by the same company—and
involuntary part-time workers, who want permanent full-time
work.

It’s not Spain.

How do workers increasingly
forced to migrate from job to job, at low and variable wage
rates, without health insurance or paid vacation, much less a
pension, care for themselves and their families, own a home,
pay for college, save for retirement, plan a future, build
strong communities?

Imagine a country where after
mass layoffs and union-busting, less than 15 percent of
workers are unionized. One out of three workers were union
members in 1955.

Imagine a country where the
concerns of working people are dismissed as "special
interests" and the profit-making interests of
globe-trotting corporations substitute for the "national
interest."

Imagine a country whose
government negotiates "free trade" agreements that
help corporations trade freely on cheap labor at home and
abroad.

One ad financed by the
country’s agency for international development showed a
Salvadoran woman in front of a sewing machine. It told
corporations, "You can hire her for 33 cents an hour.
Rosa is more than just colorful. She and her co-workers are
known for their industriousness, reliability and quick
learning. They make El Salvador one of the best buys."
The country that financed the ad intervened militarily to
make sure El Salvador would stay a "best buy" for
corporations.

It’s not Canada.

Imagine a country where more
than half of all women with children under age 6, and
three-fourths of women with children ages 6-17, are in the
paid workforce, but affordable child care and after-school
programs are scarce. (Families with incomes below the poverty
line spend nearly one-fifth of their incomes on child care.)
Apparently, kids are expected to have three parents: Two
parents with jobs to pay the bills, and another parent to be
home in mid-afternoon when school lets out—as well as
all summer.

Imagine a country where women
working year round, full time earn 71 cents for every dollar
men earn. Women don’t pay 71 cents on a man’s
dollar for their college degrees or 71 percent as much to
feed or house their children.

Imagine a country where instead
of rooting out discrimination, many policy makers are busily
blaming women for their disproportionate poverty. Back in
1977, a labor department study found that if working women
were paid what similarly qualified men earn, the number of
poor families would decrease by half. A 1991 government study
found that even "if all poor single mothers obtained
[full-time] jobs at their potential wage rates," given
their educational and employment background and prevailing
wages, "the percentage not earning enough to escape from
poverty would be 35 percent."

Two out of three workers who
earn the miserly minimum wage are women. Full-time work at
minimum wage pays below the official poverty line for a
family of two.

Imagine a country where
discrimination against women is pervasive from the bottom to
the top of the payscale, and it’s not because women are
on the "mommy track." In the words of a leading
business magazine, "at the same level of management, the
typical woman’s pay is lower than her male
colleague’s—even when she has the exact same
qualifications, works just as many years, relocates just as
often, provides the main financial support for her family,
takes no time off for personal reasons, and wins the same
number of promotions to comparable jobs."

It’s not Japan.

Imagine a country where the
awful labeling of children as "illegitimate" has
again been legitimized. Besides meaning born out of wedlock,
illegitimate also means illegal, contrary to rules and logic,
misbegotten, not genuine, wrong—to be a bastard. The
word illegitimate has consequences. It helps make people more
disposable. Single mothers and their children have become
prime scapegoats for illegitimate economics.

Imagine a country where
violence against women is so epidemic it is their leading
cause of injury. So-called "domestic violence"
accounts for more visits to hospital emergency departments
than car crashes, muggings, and rapes combined. About a third
of all murdered women are killed by husbands, boyfriends and
ex-partners (less than a tenth are killed by strangers).
Researchers say that "men commonly kill their female
partners in response to the woman’s attempt to leave an
abusive relationship."

The country has no equal rights
amendment.

It’s not Algeria.

Imagine a country where
homicide is the second-largest killer of young people, ages
15-24; "accidents," many of them drunk-driving
fatalities, are first. Increasingly lethal weapons designed
for hunting people are produced for profit by major
manufacturers and proudly defended by a politically powerful
national rifle association. Half the homes in the country
contain firearms, and guns in the home greatly increase the
risk of murder and suicide for family members and close
acquaintances.

Informational material from a
national shooting sports foundation asks, "How old is
old enough?" to have a gun, and advises parents:

"Age is not the major
yardstick. Some youngsters are ready to start at 10, others
at 14. The only real measures are those of maturity and
individual responsibility. Does your youngster follow
directions well? Would you leave him alone in the house for
two or three hours? Is he conscientious and reliable? Would
you send him to the grocery store with a list and a $20 bill?
If the answer to these questions or similar ones are yes then
the answer can also be yes when your child asks for his first
gun."

Imagine a country where
children are taught violence is the way to resolve conflict
through popular wars and media "entertainment."
"In the media world, brutality is portrayed as ordinary
and amusing" and often merged with sex, observes a
prominent public health educator. The screen "good
guys" not only use violence as a first resort, but total
war is the only response to the dehumanized "bad
guys" who often speak with foreign accents. War cartoons
and violent "superhero" shows are created expressly
to sell toys to children. Video and computer games showcase
increasingly graphic and participatory "virtual"
violence. The strong consensus of private and government
research is that on-screen violence contributes to off-screen
violence.

It’s not Australia.

Imagine a country whose school
system is rigged in favor of the already-privileged, with
lower caste children tracked by race and income into the most
deficient and demoralizing schools and classrooms. Public
school budgets are heavily determined by private property
taxes, allowing higher income districts to spend much more
than poor ones. In one large state in 1991-92, spending per
pupil ranged from $2,337 in the poorest district to $56,791
in the wealthiest.

In rich districts kids take
well-stocked libraries, laboratories, and state-of-the-art
computers for granted. In poor schools they are rationing
out-of-date textbooks and toilet paper. Rich schools often
look like country clubs—with manicured sports fields and
swimming pools. Poor schools often look more like
jails—with concrete grounds and grated windows. College
prep courses, art, music, physical education, field trips,
and foreign languages are often considered necessities for
the affluent, luxuries for the poor.

Wealthier citizens argue that
lack of money isn’t the problem in poorer
schools—family values are—until proposals are made
to make school spending more equitable. Then money matters
greatly for those who already have more.

It’s not India.

Imagine a country where Black
unemployment and infant mortality is more than twice that of
whites, and Black life expectancy is seven years less. The
government subsidized decades of segregated suburbanization
for whites while the inner cities left to people of color
were treated as outsider cities—separate, unequal, and
disposable. Recent studies have documented continuing
discrimination in employment, banking, and housing.

Imagine a country whose
constitution once defined Black slaves as worth three-fifths
of whites. Today, median Black per capita income is
three-fifths of whites.

It’s not South Africa.

Imagine a country which
pretends that anyone who needs a job can find one, while its
federal reserve board enforces slow growth economic policies
that keep millions of people unemployed, underemployed, and
underpaid.

Imagine a country with full
prisons instead of full employment. The prison population has
more than doubled since 1980. The nation is Number One in the
world when it comes to locking up its own people. The bureau
of justice statistics reports that in 1985, 1 in every 320 of
the nation’s residents were incarcerated. By the end of
1995, the figure had increased to 1 in every 167.

Imagine a country where prison
labor is a growth industry and so-called
"corrections" spending is the fastest growing part
of state budgets. Apparently, the government would rather
spend $25,000 a year to keep someone in prison than on
cost-effective programs of education, community development,
addiction treatment, and employment to keep them out. In the
words of a national center on institutions and alternatives,
this nation has "replaced the social safety net with a
dragnet."

Imagine a country that has been
criticized by human rights organizations for expanding rather
than abolishing use of the death penalty—despite
documented racial bias and numerous cases of innocents being
put to death.

It’s not China.

Imagine a country that
imprisons Black men at a rate nearly five times more than
apartheid South Africa. One out of three Black men in their
twenties are either in jail, on probation or on parole.
Meanwhile, one out of three Black men and women ages 16-19
are officially unemployed, as are nearly one out of five ages
20-24. Remember, to be counted in the official unemployment
rate you must be actively looking for a job and not finding
one. "Surplus" workers are increasingly being
criminalized.

A 1990 justice department
report observed, "The fact that the legal order not only
countenanced but sustained slavery, segregation, and
discrimination for most of our Nation’s history—and
the fact that the police were bound to uphold that
order—set a pattern for police behavior and attitudes
toward minority communities that has persisted until the
present day." A 1992 newspaper article is titled,
"GUILTY…of being black: Black men say success
doesn’t save them from being suspected, harassed and
detained."

Imagine a country waging a
racially biased "War on Drugs." More than three out
of four drug users are white, but Blacks and Latinos are much
more likely to be arrested and convicted for drug offenses
and receive much harsher sentences. Almost 90 percent of
those sentenced to state prison for drug possession in 1992
were Black and Latino.

A study in a prominent medical
journal found that drug and alcohol rates were slightly
higher for pregnant white women than pregnant Black women,
but Black women were about ten times more likely to be
reported to authorities by private doctors and public health
clinics—under a mandatory reporting law. Poor women were
also more likely to be reported.

It is said that truth is the
first casualty in war, and the "War on Drugs" is no
exception. Contrary to stereotype, "The typical cocaine
user is white, male, a high school graduate employed full
time and living in a small metropolitan area or suburb,"
says the nation’s former drug czar. A leading newspaper
reports that law officers and judges say, "Although it
is clear that whites sell most of the nation’s cocaine
and account for 80 percent of its consumers, it is blacks and
other minorities who continue to fill up [the] courtrooms and
jails, largely because, in a political climate that demands
that something be done, they are the easiest people to
arrest."

Imagine a country which
intervenes in other nations in the name of the "War on
Drugs," while it is the number one exporter of
addictive, life-shortening tobacco. It is also number four in
the world in alcohol consumption—the drug most
associated in reality with violence and death—and number
one in drunk-driving fatalities per capita. Those arrested
for drunk driving are overwhelmingly white and male and
typically treated much more leniently than illicit drug
offenders.

It’s not France.

Imagine a country where the
cycle of unequal opportunity is intensifying. Its
beneficiaries often slander those most systematically
undervalued, underpaid, underemployed, underfinanced,
underinsured, underrated, and otherwise underserved and
undermined—as undeserving, "underclass,"
impoverished in moral and social values, and lacking the
proper "work ethic." The oft-heard stereotype of
deadbeat poor people masks the growing reality of dead-end
jobs and disposable workers.

Imagine a country abolishing
aid to families with dependent children while maintaining aid
for dependent corporations.

Imagine a country slashing
assistance to its poorest people, disabled children, and
elderly refugees to close a budget deficit produced by
excessive military spending and tax cuts for corporations and
the rich. Wealthy people—whose tax rates are among the
lowest in the world—not only benefited from deficit
spending and tax breaks, they earn interest on the debt as
government bond holders.

Imagine a country with a greed
surplus and justice deficit. According to a former secretary
of labor, "were the tax code as progressive as it was
even as late as 1977," the top 10 percent of income
earners "would have paid approximately $93 billion more
in taxes" than they paid in 1989. How much is $93
billion? About the same amount as the combined 1989
government budget for all these programs for low-income
persons: aid to families with dependent children,
supplemental security income, general assistance, food and
nutrition benefits, housing, jobs and employment training,
and education aid from preschool to college loans.

Imagine a country where state
and local governments are rushing to expand lotteries, video
poker, and other government-promoted gambling to raise
revenues, disproportionately from the poor, which they should
be raising from a fair tax system.

Imagine a country whose
military budget continues consuming resources at nearly
average Cold War levels although the Soviet Union no longer
exists. In the post-Cold War world, the "Peace
Dividend" means the congress gives the military more
than it asks for. This nation also leads the world in arms
exports.

Imagine a country that ranks
first in the world in wealth and military power, and 26th in
child mortality (under five). If the government were a parent
it would be guilty of child abuse. Thousands of children die
preventable deaths.

Imagine a country where health
care is managed for healthy profit. In many countries health
care is a right, but in this one 42 million people have no
health insurance and another 29 million are underinsured,
according to the nation’s college of physicians. Lack of
health insurance is associated with a 25 percent higher risk
of death.

Imagine a country where
descendants of its first inhabitants live on reservations
strip-mined of natural resources. Life expectancy averages in
the 1940s—not the 1970s. Infant mortality is seven times
higher than the national average and a higher proportion of
people live in poverty than any other ethnic group. An Indian
leader is the country’s best known political prisoner.

Imagine a country where 500
years of plunder and lies are masked in expressions like
"Indian giver." Where the military still dubs enemy
territory, "Indian country."

Imagine a country which has
less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but uses
25 percent of the world’s oil resources. Only 3 percent
of the public’s trips are made by public transportation.
It has felled more trees since 1978 than any other country.
It is the number one contributor to acid rain and global
warming.

It’s not Brazil.

Imagine a country where half
the eligible voters don’t vote. The nation’s house
of representatives is not representative of the nation. It is
overwhelmingly male and disproportionately white. The senate
is representative of millionaires.

Imagine a country where white
men who are "falling down" the economic ladder are
being encouraged to believe they are falling because women
and people of color are climbing over them to the top or
dragging them down from the bottom. That way, they will blame
women and people of color rather than the system. They will
buy the myth of "reverse discrimination." Never
mind that white males hold 95 percent of senior management
positions (vice president and above).

Imagine a country where on top
of discrimination comes insult. It’s common for people
of color to get none of the credit when they
succeed—portrayed as undeserving beneficiaries of
affirmative action and "reverse
discrimination"—and all of the blame when they
fail. A study of the views of 15-to-24-year-olds found that
49 percent of whites believe that it is more likely that
"qualified whites lose out on scholarships, jobs, and
promotions because minorities get special preferences"
than "qualified minorities are denied scholarships,
jobs, and promotions because of racial prejudice." Only
34 percent believed that minorities are more likely to lose
out.

Imagine a country where
scapegoating thrives on misinformation. The majority of
whites in a national 1995 survey said that average Blacks
held equal or better jobs than average whites. Survey
respondents also wrongly estimated the white share of the
population to be under 50 percent—rather than 74
percent.

Imagine a country where a
former presidential press secretary boasted to reporters:
"You can say anything you want in a debate, and 80
million people hear it. If reporters then document that a
candidate spoke untruthfully, so what? Maybe 200 people read
it, or 2,000 or 20,000."

Imagine a country where a
far-right television commentator-turned-presidential
candidate—whose heroes include U.S. Senator Joe
McCarthy, Spanish dictator Franco, and Chilean dictator
Pinochet—told the national convention of one of the two
major parties: "There is a religious war going on in
this country. It is a cultural war." Delegates waved
signs saying "Gay Rights Never"—the 1990s
version of segregation forever. Referring to recent rioting
in a major city, following the acquittal of police officers
who had severely beaten a Black man, the once and future
candidate said: "I met the troopers of the 18th Cavalry,
who had come to save the city…And as those boys took back
the streets of [that city], block by block, my friends, we
must take back our cities and take back our culture and take
back our country."

It’s not the former
Yugoslavia.

Imagine a country where
scapegoating fuels fear and fear fuels scapegoating. The list
of scapegoats grows rapidly with homeless people, women and
children receiving welfare, people of color, gays and
lesbians, Jews, undocumented immigrants, longtime legal
immigrants, people with disabilities. More and more children
are declared illegitimate. More and more people are treated
as disposable.

It’s not Germany.

It’s the disUnited States.

Decades ago Martin Luther King
Jr. warned, in
Where Do We Go From Here:
Chaos or Community>
(Harper & Row,
1967), "History is cluttered with the wreckage of
nations and individuals who pursued [the] self-defeating path
of hate." King declared:

"A true revolution of
values will soon cause us to question the fairness and
justice of many of our past and present policies. We are
called to play the good samaritan on life’s roadside;
but…one day the whole Jericho road must be transformed so
that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make
their journey through life….

A true revolution of values
will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty
and wealth….There is nothing but a lack of social vision to
prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American
citizen whether he be a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid
or day laborer. There is nothing except shortsightedness to
prevent us from guaranteeing an annual minimum—and
livable<D>—income
for every American family. There is nothing, except a tragic
death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so
that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the
pursuit of war."