The Los Angeles Times reported on Jan. 20, 2013, the following study conducted by Oxfam: Eighty-five individuals — a tiny, super rich elite of the world’s population — own more wealth than the poorest half. Eighty-five people — 85! — own more than 3 billion, 500 million people. Another way of saying it is that each one of this “85 elite” owns as much as 42 million of what the poorest do.
The report goes further to document the increasing world divide between the super rich and the increasingly marginalized poor: “The top 1 percent had 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population.” In America, the richest 1 percent has received 95 percent of created wealth since 2009 while the collected wealth of the bottom 90 percent shrunk.
The story below is an attempt to bring reality to people too often seen only as statistics:
Hands trembling, she tore open the officious looking letter. In the background, she could hear the baby whimpering. Her 3-year old daughter stopped playing with her doll and looked over to her father. When he did not respond, her gaze shifted to her mom.
The woman looked back to her daughter, then back again to her husband. He was soundless, sitting slumped over in the thread-worn chair that was parked before the television. The news droned on. The broadcaster was announcing that more than 1 million Americans were losing their extended unemployment benefits.
Staring closely at her husband, her stomach turned stone hard, the pain producing tears. At least that was what she told herself. Her husband’s vacant eyes stared at the television without seeing. His mind was frozen in despair. She wiped tears away.
At first, it hadn’t been this way. When the layoffs were announced, her husband seemed almost relieved. He had worked for the same company for 10 years and saw no future. Optimistically, he foresaw securing a better-paying job, one that hopefully offered his family a brighter future.
The weeks turned to months; the optimism to discouragement then fear. The few firms who responded lukewarmly to his applications were paying next to nothing. With two kids and a wife to support, he was unable to find a job that paid enough. After still more fruitless months, there were no job offerings at all. With millions desperately seeking work, it was a free for all fight for the least amount of wages offered.
She was forced to enter the labor market. All she could secure was a part-time job at minimum wage. But with child care, transportation and emergency medical bills, there was never enough money. And now …
The letter in her hand confirmed the worst. Her family — her family — had become a statistic. They would join the first million this year and the 3 million next year who would be forced to go without. But without what? What would she choose for her family to do without. Food? Child care? Heat? Housing? Would they really end up in a homeless shelter? On welfare?
Looking over to her husband, she noticed how his black hair had become heavily streaked with gray. How his blue eyes had also turned gray. She couldn’t remember the last time she had heard him laugh. She remembered that when they had first dated that he had told her how a bout of depression in college had forced him to miss a year of school. She bit her lip. Sweet-tasting blood poured into her mouth. What if he should retreat all the way into a depressive episode and left her alone to deal with the kids — with the prospects of living among strangers in a homeless shelter.
The newsman caught her attention. He was repeating what a U.S. senator had stated: Unemployment payments were a disservice to American workers; incentivizing them not to go out and find employment. The next tidbit of news shared by the impersonal television was a recently released study that showed for the first time ever the majority of those serving in Congress were millionaires.
She felt bitter that rich people were always telling working folks what was good for them. When was the last time a millionaire was thrown off unemployment unsurance? When was the last time they had to make a decision of what they could afford? Shelter versus food? Medical bills versus transportation?
Despair and homelessness, they went together. Two things not in short supply for the casualties of the Great Recession. No forced choices there.
What had become of the American Dream? What had become of their dream? What had become of her reality?
The baby’s whimper turned to a full cry. When neither her husband nor she responded, their daughter joined in — fear turning to tears. Burying her face into her hands, she wondered when it had all gone so wrong. And now this? Did no one care? Were they really all alone? When had the concept of community been replaced by the laws of the jungle? Her own strangled whimpers joined the panicked crying of her daughters. Her husband remained silent.
The Senate just passed a bill cutting food stamps by an additional $15 billion. These cuts will affect 47 million Americans. In New York, 1 million elderly or disabled will feel the effect. In California, roughly 4 million poor will see their food budgets reduced.
According to the San Jose Mercury News: Using the Department of Agriculture statistics, this is the equivalent of 21 individual meals disappearing. More than 2 million children in just two states, California and Texas, will see additional food scarcities due to these cuts. Again. Senatorial millionaires who are little more than lobbyists for the wealthy and powerful pass judgment on the poor.
And again, we as a nation stand silently and do nothing while our neighbors in need suffer alone. Free will: We are defined by our actions — or lack there of.
— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the past 30 years, and is the author of China White, Shattered Dreams: A Story of the Streets and his first nonfiction book, There Must Be Honor. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.