Imagine a country where one out of five children is born into poverty and
wealth is being redistributed upward. Since the 1970s, the top 1 percent
of households has doubled their share of the nation’s wealth. The top 1
percent has close to 40 percent of the wealth—nearly the same amount as
the bottom 95 percent of households.
Imagine a country where economic inequality is going back to the future
circa the 1930s. The combined after-tax income of the top 1 percent of
tax filers was about half that of the bottom 50 percent of tax filers in
1986. By the late 1990s, the top 1 percent had a larger share of after-tax
income than the bottom 50 percent.
Imagine a country with a greed surplus and justice deficit. Imagine a country
where the poor and middle class bear the brunt of severe cutbacks in education,
health, environmental programs, and other public services to close state
and federal budget deficits fueled by ballooning tax giveaways for wealthy
households and corporations.
It’s not Argentina.
Imagine a country which demands that people work for a living while denying
many a living wage.
Imagine a country where health care aides can’t afford health insurance.
Where people working in the food industry depend on food banks to help
feed their children. Where childcare teachers don’t make enough to save
for their own children’s education.
It’s not the Philippines.
Imagine a country where productivity went up, but workers’ wages went down.
In the words of the national labor department, “As the productivity of
workers increases, one would expect worker compensation [wages and benefits]
to experience similar gains.” That’s not what happened.
Since 1968, worker productivity has risen 81 percent while the average
hourly wage barely budged, adjusting for inflation, and the real value
of the minimum wage dropped 38 percent.
Imagine a country where the minimum wage just doesn’t add up. Where minimum
wage workers earn more than a third less than their counterparts earned
a third of a century ago, adjusting for inflation. Where a couple with
two children would have to work more than three full-time jobs at the $5.15
minimum wage to make ends meet.
It’s not Mexico.
Imagine a country where some of the worst CEOs make millions more in a
year than the best CEOs of earlier generations made in their lifetimes.
CEOs made 45 times the pay of average production and non-supervisory workers
in 1980. They made 96 times as much in 1990, 160 times as much in 1995
and 369 times as much in 2001. Back in 1960, CEOs made an average of 38
times more than schoolteachers. CEOs made 63 times as much in 1990 and
264 times as much as public school teachers in 2001.
Imagine a country that had a record-breaking ten-year economic expansion
in 1991-2001, but millions of workers make wages so low they have to choose
between eating or heating, health care or childcare.
A leading business magazine observed, “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 increased education. Since 1973, the share of workers without a
high school degree has fallen by half. The share of workers with at least
a four-year college degree has doubled. But the 2002 average hourly wage
for production and non-supervisory workers (the majority of the workforce)
is 7.5 percent below 1973, adjusting for inflation. Median net worth (assets
minus debt) dropped between 1995 and 2001 for households headed by persons
under age 35 and households that don’t own their own home.
About one out of four workers makes $8.70 an hour or less. That’s not much
more than the real value of the minimum wage of 1968 at $8.27 in inflation-adjusted
It’s not Russia.
Imagine a country where for more and more people a job doesn’t keep you
out of poverty, it keeps you working poor. Imagine a country much richer
than it was 25 years ago, but the percentage of full-time workers living
in poverty has jumped 50 percent.
Imagine a country that sets the official poverty line well below the actual
cost of minimally adequate housing, health care, food, and other necessities.
You were not counted as poor in 2001 (latest available final data) unless
you had pre-tax incomes below these thresholds: $9,214 for a person under
65, $8,494 for a person 65 and older, $11,569 for a two-person family,
$14,128 for a three-person family, and $18,104 for a family of four. On
average, households need more than double the official poverty threshold
to meet basic needs.
Imagine a country where homelessness is on the rise, but federal funding
for low-income housing is about 50 percent lower than it was in 1976, adjusting
for inflation. The largest federal housing support program is the mortgage
interest deduction, which disproportionately benefits higher-income families.
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, pay for college, save
for retirement, plan a future, build strong communities?
Imagine a country where after mass layoffs and union busting, just 13.5
percent of workers are unionized. One out of three workers were union members
in 1955. Full-time workers who were union members had median 2001 weekly
earnings of $718 compared with just $575 for workers not represented by
Imagine a country where the concerns of working people are dismissed as
“special interests” and the profit-making interests of globetrotting corporations
substitute for the “national interest.”
Imagine a country negotiating “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 nearly two-thirds of women with children under
age 6 and more than three-fourths of women with children ages 6-17 are
in the labor force, but affordable childcare and after-school programs
are scarce. 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 full time earn 76 cents for every
dollar men earn. Women don’t pay 76 cents on a man’s dollar for their education,
rent, food or childcare. The gender wage gap has closed just 12 cents since
1955, when women earned 64 cents for every dollar earned by men. There’s
still another 24 cents to go.
The average woman high school graduate who works full time from ages 25
to 65 will earn about $450,000 less than the average male high school graduate.
The gap widens to $900,000 for full-time workers with bachelor’s degrees.
“Men with professional degrees may expect to earn almost $2 million more
than their female counterparts over their work-life,” says a government
Imagine a country where childcare workers, mostly women, generally make
about as much as parking lot attendants and much less than animal trainers.
Out of 700 occupations surveyed by the labor department, only 15 have lower
average wages than childcare workers.
Imagine a country where most minimum wage workers are women, while 95 percent
of the top-earning corporate officers at the largest 500 companies are
men, as are 90 percent of the most influential positions, from CEOs to
executive vice president. Less than 2 percent of corporate officers at
the largest companies are women of color.
Imagine a country where discrimination against women is pervasive from
the bottom to the top of the pay scale 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.”
Imagine a country where instead of rooting out discrimination, many policy
makers are busily blaming women for their disproportionate poverty. If
women earned as much as similarly qualified men, poverty in single-mother
households would be cut in half.
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, “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 Pakistan.
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. It leads major industrialized nations in firearms-related deaths
for children under 15. Increasingly lethal weapons designed for hunting
people are produced for profit by major manufacturers and proudly defended
by a politically powerful national rifle association. 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.”
It’s not France.
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 the state with the largest
gap in 1999-2000, state and local spending per pupil in districts with
the lowest child poverty rates was more than $2,152 greater than districts
with the highest child poverty rates. The difference amounts to about $861,000
for a typical elementary school of 400 students—money that could be used
for teachers, books, and other resources. Disparities are even wider among
states, with spending in districts with enrollments of 15,000 or more ranging
from $3,932 per pupil in one district to $14,244 in another.
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 whose constitution once counted black slaves as worth
three-fifths of whites. Today, black per capita income is about three-fifths
of whites. Imagine a country where racial disparities take their toll from
birth to death. The black infant mortality rate is more than double that
of whites. Black life expectancy is nearly six years less. Black unemployment
is more than twice that of whites and the black poverty rate is almost
triple that of whites.
Imagine a country where 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 education, employment,
banking, insurance, housing, and health care.
It’s not South Africa.
Imagine a country where the typical non-Hispanic white household has seven
times as much net worth (including home equity) as the typical household
of color. From 1995 to 2001, the typical white household’s net worth rose
from $88,500 to $120,900 while the net worth of the typical household of
color fell from $18,300 to $17,100.
Imagine a country that doesn’t count you 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
childcare, for example. If you need a full-time job, but you’re working
part-time—whether 1 hour or 34 hours weekly—because that’s all you can
find, you’re counted as employed.
A leading business magazine observed, “Increasingly the labor market is
filled with surplus workers who are not being counted as unemployed.”
It’s not Germany.
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 with full prisons instead of full employment. The jail
and prison population has nearly quadrupled since 1980. The nation is number
one in the world when it comes to locking up its own people. In 1985, 1
in every 320 residents were incarcerated. By 2001, the figure had increased
to 1 in every 146.
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 growing evidence of innocents being sentenced
It’s not China.
Imagine a country that imprisons black people at a rate much higher than
apartheid South Africa. One out of seven black men ages 25-29 are incarcerated.
Many more are on probation or on parole. Looking just at prisons and not
local jails, 10 percent of black males ages 25-29 were locked up at the
end of 2001, compared with 1 percent of white males. Black non-Hispanic
women are five times more likely to be imprisoned than white non-Hispanic
women. Meanwhile, nearly one out of three black men and women ages 16-19
are officially unemployed, as are 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
Imagine a country waging a racially biased War on Drugs. More than three
out of four drug users are white, according to government data, but three
out of four state prisoners convicted of drug offenses are black and Latino.
Racial disparities in drug and other convictions are even wider when non-Hispanic
whites are distinguished more accurately from Latinos.
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% 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.” They are the easiest to
It’s not Australia.
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 that abolished aid to families with dependent children
while maintaining aid for dependent corporations.
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 tops average Cold War levels although
the break up of the Soviet Union produced friends, not foes. This nation
spends almost as much on the military as the rest of the world combined
and leads the world in arms exports.
Imagine a country that ranks first in the world in wealth and military
power, and 34th in child mortality (under five), tied with Malaysia and
well behind countries such as Singapore and South Korea. 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 nation one out of six people
under age 65 has no health insurance, public or private. Healthcare is
literally a matter of life and death. Lack of health insurance typically
means lack of preventive health care and delayed or second-rate treatment.
The uninsured are at much higher risk for chronic disease and disability,
and have a 25 percent greater chance of dying (adjusting for physical,
economic, and behavioral factors). Uninsured women are 49 percent more
likely to die than women with insurance during the four to seven years
following an initial diagnosis of breast cancer.
Imagine a country where many descendants of its first inhabitants live
on reservations strip-mined of natural resources and have a higher proportion
of people in poverty than any other ethnic group.
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
Imagine a country which has less than 5 percent of the world’s population,
but uses more than 40 percent of the world’s oil resources and about 20
percent of the coal and wood. It is the number one contributor to acid
rain and global warming. It has obstructed international action on the
environment and climate change.
It’s not Brazil.
Imagine a country where half the eligible voters don’t vote. The nation’s
senate and house of representatives are not representative of the nation.
They are overwhelmingly white, male, and millionaire. At least 170 senators
and congresspeople are millionaires. That’s nearly one out of three members
of the house and senate. Just 1 percent of the population they represent
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
corporate and government policy. They will buy the myth of “reverse discrimination.”
Never mind that white males hold most senior management positions and continuing
unreversed discrimination is well documented.
Imagine a country with a president who, even more than his father before
him, “was born on third base and thought he hit a triple.” The president
wants to undo affirmative action. Never mind that despite all his advantages
he was a mediocre student who relied on legacy affirmative action for the
children of rich alumni to get into a top prep school and college. Never
mind that he rode his family connections in business and politics.
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.
Imagine a country where a then 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 politicians and judges whose views were formerly
considered far right on the political spectrum now rule both houses of
congress and the presidency and increasingly dominate the judiciary.
Imagine a country whose leaders misuse a fight against terrorism as camouflage
for undermining democracy. Fundamental civil liberties, including the right
not to be imprisoned indefinitely on the word of government officials,
are being tossed aside. The attorney general attacked critics of administration
policy with McCarthyite words: “To those who scare peace-loving people
with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid
terrorists for they erode our national unity…They give ammunition to
[our] enemies and pause to [our] friends.” The attorney general would burn
democracy in the name of saving it.
It’s not Italy.
It’s the United States.
Decades ago Martin Luther King Jr. called on us to take the high road in
Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? King wrote: “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—income for every American
Holly Sklar is the coauthor of Raise The Floor: Wages and Policies That
Work For All Of Us.