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Ken Williams: More Help for the Rich, More Pain for the Poor

Lives continue to be ruined by those whose greed is insurmountable

The poor have been hammered during the Great Recession, yet the talk in Washington is help for the rich. The working and middle class are decimated, with ever-increasing numbers joining the ranks of the poor and homeless.

According to a study by the University of Indiana, “The number of Americans living below the poverty line surged by 27 percent since the beginning of what it calls the ‘Great Recession’ in 2006, driving 10 million more people into poverty.”

Forty-seven million of our fellow Americans now live in poverty. They say the unemployment rate is 8.1 percent, but that is artificially low as increasing numbers of discouraged workers drop out of the labor market. A more meaningful statistic is the ratio of workers to the working-age population in America. A healthy economy has a ratio of 0.60 to 0.70. The actual ratio before the Great Recession had held remarkably stable at 0.62. It now stands at 0.58.

Since the peak of government employment in 2008, more than 680,000 have lost their jobs. These are the teachers of our children, the police on the beat and the firefighters who protect our homes. Included in those numbers are those who do the mundane jobs of filling potholes and keeping our food and water supplies safe for consumption. There are also the unsung heroes of public health who keep deadly diseases at bay and the social workers who care for the defenseless and abused children, the frail elderly and the sick. But still, more blood is demanded. More cuts in services. More pain for the poor.

Among all the talk of too much help that the poor receive, one must keep in mind that the average person on what used to be known as food stamps gets a princely monthly allocation of $133.84. In 2005, 6.5 million Americans received some type of housing assistance from the government. By 2009, that number had declined to 4.9 million, a 26 percent reduction. Is there any wonder poverty floods our cities as the homeless struggle for shelter and food?

Our children now deal with an educational system that has two classes. Those who can, flee public education. Those who cannot escape are taught with fewer and fewer teachers, fewer and fewer resources as state and local government revenues dry up. If and when they are lucky enough to secure a college education, the sons and daughters of the working and middle classes will graduate with an average staggering loan of $25,000.

The new bubble is now formed and ready to repeat the disastrous consequences that were so devastating when the last bubble — housing — collapsed. Current and former students now owe more than $1 trillion. With little job growth, the breaking point may not be too far down the road. And yet, the rich still must not only hang on to their Bush-era tax cuts but also some, not all, want more. Warren Buffett, a man of honor and common sense, is one such person.

In 2007, the top 1 percent earned 21 percent of before-tax income and 17 percent of after-tax income. In the same year, the bottom 20 percent earned 3 percent of the before-tax and 5 percent of the after-tax income. In comparison, in 1970, the top 1 percent earned a mere 9 percent. This same report by the Survey of Consumer Finances found that in 2007, the top 1 percent owned 35 percent of the country’s wealth.

Another study, this one by Lawrence Mishel and Natalie Sabadish published this month, reported the following data: “Average annual incomes of the top 1 percent of households were 42 times greater than incomes of the bottom 90 percent (up from 14 times greater in 1979), and incomes of the top 0.1 percent were 220 times greater (up from 47 times greater in 1979).”

How do these shocking statistics compare with the rest of the industrial world?

2005 World Top Incomes Database
Top 1 percent income share by county

» Japan — 9.2

» Australia — 9.12

» France — 8.73

» USA — 17.69

And still the poor get poorer, the homeless more desperate. A human face to this misery was what happened to someone I met on the streets a few years back. He had been a member of the working class his entire life. He was in the construction business — that is to say, his life was construction. Then he hit a speed bump in the road of life. Money came hard and jobs disappeared. He did what he had to do to still the pain. He shot himself in the chest with a nail gun. Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident.

According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “People in their ‘prime working ages’ of 25 to 64 years old are the most likely to commit suicide during recessions.” During the Great Depression, the suicide rate was 22 per 100,000. By 2000, that number had fallen to 10. This study clearly linked suicides with the economy.

The next time we want to blame the homeless for being homeless or object to the dirty face of poverty, we might want to take a moment to try, without blinders or partisan bias blinding us to the truth, to see the real causes for our country’s grave economic crisis. When is too much too much? How much money is enough for one person? How many material possessions can one possess? An old Indian proverb goes something like this: Only when the last tree is cut down, the last river damned, will we realize we cannot eat money.

How long do we wait for the powers that be to quit coddling Wall Street and the bankers whose greed is insurmountable? Who has yet gone to prison for the crimes of falsifying the worth of junk mortgages? Why has no one yet to answer for the swindle of swaps? Why, when Rome burned, all some could think of was how much in bonuses they could collect before the house of cards collapsed?

Guess what? It has. And real pain and real lives ruined by the millions are left in their greedy wake. When is enough, enough?

— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the past 30 years. His writings and opinions reflect only his personal views. He does not speak as a representative for or on behalf of any organization with which he may be affiliated. He is the author of China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets. He has just completed his first nonfiction book, There Must Be Honor.

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