Does Inequality Kill? Part One

(This was posted in my old blog and I finally tracked it down. The issue of inequality hasn’t gone away, so I will be posting all three parts of this piece on this website as well.)

This will be a three part blog exploring a claim made in the Pope’s most recent Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium In chapter two section one: No to an economy of exclusion, His Holiness offers up a harsh criticism of the current financial system, which is that it literally kills. An excerpt is as follows:

Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.

Does such an economy kill? It is truly a question worth asking. Not just for Catholics and other Christians, but for all of us who believe that human life is sacred. After all, if in fact inequality is a byproduct of man-made financial institution, and this inequality leads to unnecessary human suffering and even death, then do we not have a moral obligation to withdraw from this system and design one more in line with our moral or religious covenants? Most people can easily find the immorality in committing an act of murder. But it is much harder to be rooted in deep moral opposition to something as seemingly intangible as an economy.

Rather than delve into the potential moral issues of participating in an “economy of exclusion and inequality,” let’s first try and build the argument that our current economy does in fact kill. In order to do that it must be established that inequality exists (Part 1) and it is a byproduct of our financial institution (Part 2). I think that if it can be established that inequality is embedded into the economy, and being on the less fortunate side of inequality significantly increases the likelihood of living in a more hazardous environment without sufficient access to the necessities to sustain life (Part 3), then the case can be made that an unequal economy does in fact kill.

Part 1: Inequality exists

In George R. Tyler’s book What Went Wrong: How the 1% Hijacked the American Middle Class…And What Other Countries Got Right, evidence is laid out in chapter 15 that shows income disparity in America is greater than in any other rich democracy. Furthermore statistics compiled by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development show that in 2005 the richest ten percent earned $16 to every $1 the poorest ten percent earned. To put this in real terms, this means that on any given day there is a poor person working making $8 per hour totaling roughly $64 for the day while their rich counterpart is earning $128 per hour totaling about $1024 dollars per day.

What is important about the above statistic is that we are talking about working people in this scenario, and much of the noise created by arguments about abuse of entitlements and welfare programs can be set to the side. The message to the poorest 10 percent here is that the value of their hours is only a sixteenth as valuable in dollars as the richest ten percent’s. Or that it will take them sixteen working days, more than three-fourths of the month, to earn what the richest ten percent earns on day one.

Another thing I want to point out is that a person being 16 times more anything than another person only exists in the realm of money.  Think about someone being sixteen times faster than another person. It doesn’t happen. The most recent person to win the Boston Marathon ran it at a pace of 4:54 per mile. The average pace for American men who completed a marathon in 2011 was just over 10 minutes per mile. In other words, the most elite marathon runners run their marathons about twice as fast as the average person, not sixteen times as fast. The same goes for strength, any other form of physical abilities, and even intelligence by any current measure. I think it is fairly safe to say that income is not being distributed solely based on the merits.

In chapter one of The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, Joseph E. Stiglitz says this:

“The simple story of America is this: the rich are getting richer, the richest of the rich are getting still richer, the poor are becoming poorer and more numerous, and the middle class is being hollowed out.”

At this point I feel most people are familiar with statistics describing the borderline, if not outright, grotesque increases in earnings for the top one percent compared to the other ninety nine percent. So instead of regurgitating more of those numbers I think it best to discuss another point Stiglitz makes, which is that the standard of living for the majority of Americans is in decline.

This point is a little less obvious because one thing that is clear is that Americans have a lot more stuff now. It is very common for each member of a family to have their own T.V.s, cell phones, and computers. The number of cars in a household seems to depend on the number of licensed drivers living in that home. Even poor people have flat screen TVs and cell phones these days.

The illusion here is that these things, or goods, (TVs, cell phones etc..) are evidence that the standard of living has been increasing, most notably for poor individuals, especially when taking into account the various government assistance programs available to low wage earners. Here in Pennsylvania, I frequently read social media posts where people complain about a person at the grocery store who is paying for their items with an Access card, while having purportedly nicer clothes or shoes than they, or making remarks criticizing the outrageously expensive, or unhealthy, or unpractical contents in the welfare recipient’s shopping cart. And although it’s never quite explicitly stated, there always seems to be an implication that there is something atrocious happening in this country where a bunch of lazy people dependent on government assistance are living a better quality of life than those that work. If this is true, then how can the standard of living possibly be getting worse for poor people? And to refer back to the original question, how can inequality kill?

The answer to the first question partly lies in what has become more affordable and what has become less affordable in recent years. An excellent graphic is shown in the New York Times article Changed Life of the Poor: Better Off, but Far Behind, that displays changes in prices for items and services relative to a 23% increase in prices for all items from 2005-2014. What this graphic helps us to understand is that college tuition, child care and food costs are on the rise, while relative costs of cell phone service, computers and televisions are declining. So yes, it is easier for all Americans, including the poor, to get their hands on televisions, computers and cell phones these days, but it is also much harder to pursue higher education, which is critical to upward mobility, and obtain health care. And yes, clothing also appears to be becoming more affordable. It’s not uncommon to find name brand clothes in Goodwill stores anymore, and stores like Ross and Marshalls are abundant. So, to circle back to the social media example above, it is possible that at any given moment someone could be using food stamps to pay for their groceries wearing name brand clothing from head to toe. But I like to think that here in America we are striving for something a little more than having the best dressed poor people.

More about the living circumstances of the poor will be addressed in part 3 of this blog, but at this point I hope that I have helped people understand that the there is real inequality in this country. Not everyone who works hard is rewarded, and the disparity in earnings between low wage and high wage workers well exceeds the difference in the “importance” of one’s job or the talents of the workers themselves.

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